Social Media Behaviors in Health and Health Care: A Literature Review

With as many as 74 percent of internet users engaged on social media1 — with 23 percent on Twitter alone2 — social media tools are profoundly affecting the way we share ideas and connect with one another. Doctors, researchers and hospitals are especially poised to capitalize on this trend, since 80 percent of those internet users are specifically looking for health information, and nearly half are searching for information about a specific doctor or health professional.3

While people may be browsing Google for answers to their health questions and medical symptoms, they still view doctors as their first choice for health information.3 If doctors and researchers can leverage social tools to connect with those communities, there is the potential to increase their reach and impact within the global community.

Therese Lockemy, director of internet marketing and social engagement, guides Johns Hopkins Medicine’s strategy for social engagement. If you like this post and want to learn more about social insights and opportunities for collaboration, she and her team can help.
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I recently reviewed the latest research on the topic of social media behaviors in health and health care, and I noticed some consistent themes. Here’s just a snapshot of current trends beyond Johns Hopkins Medicine:

Appeal to Active Audiences

Information on social media can have a direct influence on patients’ decisions to seek a second opinion or choose a specific provider, particularly for people who are coping with a chronic condition or managing their diet, exercise or stress.5 Some of the most engaged and active audiences on social are individuals coping with a disability or chronic condition, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer; caregivers; and people who have recently experienced a medical emergency.3 If this is the audience you want to engage, consider sharing information about general wellness or stress and diet management, as well as general tips for coping with chronic conditions like diabetes, migraines or scoliosis. Information about the latest research about these conditions can serve a similar purpose.

Keep Up to Date with the Latest Research

illustration of digital marketing at workMany doctors who are actively engaged on Twitter are using it to stay up to date on the latest peer-reviewed papers and advances in their fields8 Twitter’s availability on mobile devices makes it easy to get updated information quickly, at any time of day. Since Twitter is the preferred social tool among physicians,8 it presents the ideal opportunity to share research findings, collaborate on research and network with colleagues.

Dispelling Misinformation

While health information posted on health forums is often in line with medical guidelines, that’s not the case with YouTube and Twitter.9 Recent studies show that user-generated content on these social channels is more often inconsistent with scientific evidence and clinical guidelines. With how highly regarded researchers and doctors are in their profession, this presents an opportunity for them to help identify misinformation and correct it.

Don’t Just Tweet at Me

The most successful users on Twitter don’t just tweet at their audiences but join in on the conversation. A study of public perception of companies on Twitter found that when organizations actively respond to public comments and engage in a two-way dialogue with users, those users report higher levels of trust, commitment and satisfaction.9 This can also apply to a physician’s use of Twitter as a relationship management tool with the general public, their colleagues and research collaborators. Engaging in active two-way communication with target audiences can directly affect how highly those audiences regard the physician and how satisfied they feel with the physicians they’re engaging with.

Connect with Patients

connecting-people-squareTwitter and other social tools have the potential to revolutionize medicine in terms of providing valuable medical information to patients in rural areas, who have fewer options for readily available medical information,6 and to impact patient care on a global scale.7 For example, one physician reported being connected with a woman in Abu Dhabi to provide her resources for developing a curriculum for non-nurse caregivers and also assisting people in Australia to start a palliative care program. An infectious disease specialist in Pittsburgh reported using Twitter to identify and track disease outbreaks.8

Physicians who are active Twitter users have also reported becoming more introspective about their online presence, and the way they were perceived by patients and their colleagues.8 Twitter can help improve the doctor-patient relationship by humanizing the physician and exposing patients to their physicians’ personalities and philosophies, therefore breaking down the barriers of traditional power structures to enable better communication.8

Respect Patient Privacy

Doctors are one of the several professional groups who are evaluated based on their professional role, even if they’re not at work.4 Even if you’re using your personal Twitter handle, when people see that you’re a doctor, you will be viewed as a credible source of health information. With that in mind, every posting on social media should be evaluated based on the effect it could have on public trust and the security of patient information.

On unsecure, open sites like Twitter, the content of communication (even in direct private messages) ultimately belongs to the third-party platform and is vulnerable to security breaches. Therefore, make sure everything you post protects patient privacy and is in line with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines. Social postings about patients should be limited to those that place the patient’s and public’s interest above the physician’s own self-interest. If the two are not in sync, the content is not ethically justifiable.4

Most importantly, have fun! Some sources suggest that shooting for just one to three tweets per day can have an impact on fostering invaluable connections. Enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with your colleagues, connect with your patients and build your brand, all in real time.



  1. Kleppinger, C. A., & Cain, J. (2015). Personal Digital Branding as a Professional Asset in the Digital Age. Am J Pharm Educ American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 79(6), 79. doi:10.5688/ajpe79679
  2. Duggan, Maeve. “Mobile Messaging and Social Media – 2015” Pew Research Center. August 2015. Available at:
  3. Fox, S. (2011, February 1). Health Topics. Retrieved from
  4. Chretien, K. C., & Kind, T. (2014). Climbing Social Media in Medicine’s Hierarchy of Needs. Academic Medicine, 89(10), 1318-1320. doi:10.1097/acm.0000000000000430
  5. Social Media ‘Likes’ Healthcare: From Marketing to Social Business (2012)
  6. Ventola, C. L. (2014). Social Media and Health Care Professionals: Benefits, Risks, and Best Practices. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 39(7), 491–520.Alpert & Womble, 2016
  7. Panahi, S., Watson, J., & Partridge, H. (2014). Social media and physicians: Exploring the benefits and challenges. Health Informatics Journal, 22(2), 99-112. doi:10.1177/146045821454090
  8. Chou, W. S., Prestin, A., Lyons, C., & Wen, K. (2013). Web 2.0 for Health Promotion: Reviewing the Current Evidence. Am J Public Health American Journal of Public Health, 103(1). doi:10.2105/ajph.2012.301071
  9. Lee, H., & Park, H. (2013). Testing the impact of message interactivity on relationship management and organizational reputation. Journal of Public Relations Research, 25, 188-206.