Does it surprise you that an increasing number of medical patients are using social media to ask questions, raise concerns, or voice experiences?

It shouldn’t.

For healthcare professionals, this means that social media is no longer the domain of the doctor, physician’s assistant, or nurse — it’s now an extension of our healthcare system in real-time. It also means healthcare PR is evolving. Today, PR practitioners can use social networks to improve patient care, build trust, and learn from peers.

A new study, The Fluency Report: Health Literacy by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company, provides insight on the changing nature of consumer confidence in healthcare and the role of healthcare companies, marketers, and communicators.

Our study indicates that the paths by which traditional healthcare organizations relied on are morphing. In the digital era, the role of social media in healthcare has changed vastly. With the addition of social media tools, healthcare organizations can now reach diverse audiences and more people. Social media has also made it easier and faster for healthcare institutions to connect with followers for news delivery and other updates.

The study defines digital health literacy as encompassing a consumer’s understanding of topics such as insurance coverage, disease diagnoses, medication adherence, coordinated care, and preventative care. The democratization of information was already changing the way the public sought out information on these topics, but trends accelerated in 2020 as a concrete set of issues dominated the headlines: the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election, health care policy, racial divides, and equity and access.

The purpose of the research was to better understand consumer conversations occurring in the health space to comprehend the level and depth of knowledge and factual understanding leading to better solutions for individual and societal health outcomes.

Employing both digital and social research models to ascertain what online audiences were interested in, discussing/debating, and concerned about, we were able to highlight key data. Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) allowed the research team to analyze text and identify themes.

Among key findings of the report:
— Democratization of information and the plethora of social and digital platforms has led consumers to turn to a wider variety of health care sources. They now seek out authoritative sources for information about well-defined health care issues but use social media and crowdsourcing for information about less-understood topics and more authentic dialogue.
— Consumers view search and earned media as a “tell me” interaction, and social media as a “talk with me” interaction. Overall, consumers crave engagement and conversation, rather than the pushing of information.
— Consumers are looking for diverse voices who can speak authentically to historically underserved populations. They don’t always see companies as the best spokesperson but want companies to play the role of “creator and convener” and help elevate the spokespeople they value and trust.
— Consumers consider themselves to be their own best health care advocates and will disregard sources that don’t respect and work with that perspective.

Consumer health behavior is changing. Consumers are taking charge and becoming an ever-growing part of the narrative. They are looking for trusted sources of information, and they’re looking to connect with people who share their values. Often overwhelmed with information and misinformation related to their health, they’re looking for authentic, trusted voices to help. That’s where communicators come in. Health is a top priority for many consumers, and they are seeking trusted information from sources they can trust.

Public relations practitioners within the healthcare space have the ability to be that trusted voice!

Regina Luttrell, Ph.D. is the associate dean for research and creative activity and the director of the W20 Emerging Insights Lab housed at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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