For more than a year, we have been conducting observational research with active digital health consumers (or e-patients) in their natural online habitat. We’ve been passively observing their Web and social media activities to understand how they actually find and consume health content on a range of subjects, including cancer, heart disease and sexually transmitted illnesses.
Our primary goal is to answer the question everyone’s asking about online and social media content: Does it shape health behavior and, if so, how?
To date, we’ve collected reams of observational data on the sites people visit, the content they read and view and more. What’s become clear over the course of this research is that much of the received wisdom about the shape, scope and impact of the traditional and social Web is either inaccurate or wrong. Following are four common myths about Web and social media health content we feel need to be aggressively debunked.
Myth 1: If Health Content is on Facebook or Twitter, It's Just Not Credible
One area we are particularly interested in is the perceived credibility of online health content. As people in our study encounter health and medical information online, they are immediately asked to measure the credibility of the content they are consuming using a five-point scale (1 = low and 5 = high). These Credibility Scores are averaged for all Web and social media content encountered over the course of our studies.
During the latest wave of our research, launched in late September 2012, average Credibility Scores for health content consumed via Facebook and Twitter have hovered between 3.1 and 3.5. If people believed the health content they were encountering on these sites was completely unreliable, we would expect to see average scores between 2 and 2.8. In addition, earlier this year, we found that physicians rated the credibility of health and medical content they encountered on Facebook and Twitter with similar Credibility Scores. It's clear that we can't assume people believe health content is completely unreliable just because it appears on Facebook and Twitter.
Myth 2: Sentiment is An Accurate Measure of Content Impact
We're also looking at whether sentiment can tell us anything about the impact of content on health behavior. This is an important question, as sentiment has become an important proxy for content impact -- i.e., it is assumed that positive content has a favorable effect, negative content has a unfavorable effect. We've learned one important thing about sentiment: it tells us very little about whether people will take action. Just because a particular piece of content is perceived as negative or positive does not mean that it will definitely shift health behavior one way or the other.
Myth 3: In Health, People Like Me Have More Influence than Traditional Information Sources
With the rise of social and peer-developed content, it's become popular to assume that e-patients or other laypeople developing content online have more influence than traditional information or authority figures. We've found this is simply untrue. Not only are old-school online players like the mainstream media major outlets more likely to publish health content that captures attention, but they also have a greater influence on perceptions and intent.
Myth 4: Social and Search Are the Primary Ways People Encounter Health Content
Although a good amount of health content is consumed via search and social, these are not the primary ways people encounter much health/medical information. Rather, a great deal of content is being consumed serendipitously via a range of Web properties, including news sites and health sites such as WebMD.
We’re learning a lot about how people actually consume health content – as opposed to what they report via surveys or is measured via high-level click stream analysis. What’s clear is that the reality of the health social Web is much more complicated and nuanced than we’ve come to believe.