Social media and the health divide

At the #hcsmca tweet-up a couple of weeks ago, I was really impressed by a statement from Scarborough Hospital’s Dave Bourne about one of his social media challenges.  Almost half his community doesn’t speak English at home.  Wow. 

That got me thinking about my own social media activities here in Ottawa.  What populations might we be under-serving? And what is the impact?

We’ve all read how poverty impacts people’s health.  For example, children in low-income families are more than 2 ½ times more likely than children in high-income families to have lower functioning vision, hearing, speech, mobility, dexterity, cognition, and pain/discomfort.

This disparity is commonly referred to as the health divide.  And most people seem to agree that the Internet has only further widened it.

Susannah Fox describes it well in her blog post, saying: “significant portions of the adult population do not have access to up-to-date information on drug recalls, food safety, or treatment options.”

She goes on to show which groups are more and less likely to access on-line health information. There are digital divides along race, income and level of education.

This makes sense, if you don’t have regular access to a computer, you won’t have access to the rich health information available on-line. 

But is there any way for social media to address this gap?

Many say yes.  Especially as more people access the Internet through cheaper mobile devices instead of expensive home computers.

Social media has potential to spread health tips to more people — bringing health information to them instead of waiting for them to seek it out.   And it has the potential to better engage people on health topics, potentially impacting health outcomes.

According to Jim Mittler:

“…African Americans are the most active users of the mobile Internet and their use is growing the fastest. Daily access to the Web via a mobile device by African Americans has increased 141% between 2007 and 2009. This suggests that minority populations who are most affected by health disparities are becoming increasingly connected to the Web and, therefore, have a wealth of health-related information at their fingertips. If social media has the power to disseminate health information and support patients, it is important to know how those affected by health disparities are utilizing social media.”

He went on to site an interesting report that found “significantly more nonwhite Americans used social networking sites than white Americans (45% vs 31%, respectively). These data suggest a unique opportunity to target minority populations with health information via social networking sites.”

In a blog post, Nate Osit talks about the use of mobile tools to impact health in traditionally at-risk populations.   He sites the use of Twitter in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake in Haiti – helping people find and stay connected with family members.  And he cites examples of SMS tools being utilized to combat cholera outbreaks.

Osit also said that tools like Twitter and Facebook back be used to help those in poorer communities who are affected by stress-related illness.

 “Lack of social support has been identified as a key contributor to their stress. By becoming part of online communities, those suffering begin to see they are not alone. Social media connects these people to their community and the world, validating their emotions, providing a support network, and allowing them to create strategies for change.”

On the flip side, there are those that argue social media might only further widen the digital health divide because the language of social media is primarily English. 

Daniel Ghinn explains how the majority of on-line health information is inaccessible to those who don’t read English well.  This is often the poor and the aged who could probably greatly benefit from the resources on-line health communities can bring.

As we roll-out social media activities, how do we make sure we don’t widen any health divide that might already exist in our communities?  How we do all reduce the gap?

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