In this post, GlobalWebIndex's Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine examines the role of social media in the changing healthcare sector, and how consumer behaviour is altering the way brands and healthcare providers need to engage with communities online.

Search any health-related hashtag on social media and you’ll find a free-flowing stream of content and conversation from people across the world. The shift to everything digital has impacted most industries, and healthcare hasn’t been left behind.

More generally, GlobalWebIndex’s global research reveals that a third of internet users say that researching health issues or healthcare products is an important reason for using the internet, and a more important reason than activities like gaming and business-related networking. This type of research is cross-generational, and unlike most other motivations, it’s Baby Boomers who are the most likely to say this, highlighting an opportunity for brands to effectively target older consumers in the space.

But doctor visits aren’t being ditched just yet. Recommendations from health professionals and brand familiarity are still the most important factors when deciding between healthcare products to buy, but 3 in 10 now say that information or recommendations online are very important - a figure that has climbed by 31% since 2017 - showing just how central the internet has become in the healthcare research and education space.

Social media will undoubtedly be a big part of this shift. In bespoke research conducted by GlobalWebIndex in 2019 among internet users in the UK and the US, we explored the current social status quo from the consumer point of view. Here’s what we found out.

Social is a key shortcut to health and lifestyle advice
Almost 1 in 4 said they use social media when researching healthcare topics, showing how its perception as a marketplace and browser is becoming a reality. And for this research, Facebook was the leading platform by 10 percentage points, revealing not only its popularity but how it’s seen as a reputable source for information. Generation Z favoured YouTube, which isn’t surprising if you think about their well-documented love of video-based and influencer content.

When it comes to what these health researchers are looking for on social media, lifestyle health topics were the most researched, like fitness, weight loss and nutrition. The demand for this content has led to a boom of it on social media in the last few years, so much so that it's become difficult to avoid. #Fitness has 370m posts on Instagram alone.

Far fewer said they researched topics like vaccines, addiction and heart disease. These conditions might have lower prevalence rates in the population, but this helps to shine a light on how one of social media’s roles in healthcare currently is to be a space for conversation around less serious health topics and concerns.

Social is for searching but not for interacting with experts, just yet  
Consumers are more likely to be passively engaging when researching healthcare topics. They were more likely to be researching symptoms, browsing through recommendations and exploring treatment options. Social media’s community, feel and focus is ideal for finding advice from peers or those suffering from the same conditions.

It’s clear that the majority are not comfortable conversing with experts or openly discussing health issues just yet. This is echoed when we look at the types of healthcare accounts that consumers follow on social media. Governmental health organizations like the NHS in the UK were top, but health influencers like those posting about exercising or recipes were the second most followed - ahead of well-known doctors, non-profit health charities, and academic health sources. 

With this in mind, there are a few key examples of experts that have been able to use social media to spread messages of positivity and supportive around important topics, especially among young people. Dr Christian Jessen, the ‘TV Doctor’, who gained status from UK TV show Embarrassing Bodies, has been able to create a persona as the friendly and approachable doctor and is able to leverage this on social media to connect with people. Branded as Dr Alex on his Instagram and YouTube, Alex George who gained popularity after appearing in 2018’s Love Island frequently uses his one million-strong following to discuss topics like sexual and mental health, as well as having Q&A sessions on his Stories. This type of healthcare influencer, alongside those with a strong fitness focus like The Body Coach, presents partnering opportunities for brands too. 

What does it mean for brands?
As with any sensitive topic, consumers searching will be on the lookout for reliable information. Recognised brands have built up trust with their consumers and can, therefore, be a credible alternative for advice to in-person specialists. There’s a big opportunity for brands across industries to join the growing conversation around healthcare topics on social media - whether that’s partnering with healthcare charities or health influencers, or just sharing valuable and educational content around topics that are relevant to their audience. In this sense, brands can be an important bridge between consumers and health organisations and professionals.

The healthcare space benefits from having social media as a safe space to educate and support the consumer demand for advice and information - but social media is yet to seriously disrupt the industry and replace the traditional GP-consumer relationship that consumers need. GlobalWebIndex’s research has shown there’s a strong demand for new digital technologies to help consumers manage their health more effectively though, and social media is well placed to be a part of this. Its future in healthcare is definitely a bright one.