The internet is a repository of data and information that can positively influence human health outcomes. Such information includes medical research, clinical studies, health education campaigns from profit and non-profit organizations, as well as health advice from medical providers across the care continuum.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Boston University’s Master of Science in Health Communication program.

How Health Communicators Put Digital Data to Work

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Consumption of Web-Based Health Information

Approximately 71 percent of Americans search the web for information that is relevant to their medical or health needs. Of this total, 60 percent go online to search for information related to prescription medications, while 57 percent search for information on diagnostic procedures and processes. In addition, 52 percent of Americans use the internet to search for information on dietary supplements. And 49 percent go online to search for information on various treatment options.

The Internet of Things (IoT) in Health Care

In 2016, approximately 5.5 million internet-connected devices were activated daily, somewhere in the world. By the close of 2016, more than 6.4 billion web-connected devices were predicted – outpacing 2015 by 30 percent. Experts expect this trend to continue, surpassing 20.8 billion by the end of 2020.

With this in mind, 26 percent of all health care providers in the United States already monitor patients remotely and manage such information via FDA-approved wearable devices.

This includes:

  • 73 percent of health care facilities using glucometers to observe the blood glucose levels of patients;
  • 63 percent of health care providers using heart rate monitors to keep track of patients’ cardiovascular health;
  • 61 percent using blood pressure cuffs;
  • 46 percent monitoring through use of weight scales;
  • An estimated 9 percent of health care providers use other types of web-connected devices to remotely track patient health measures.

The number of providers using health-monitoring devices is expected to grow at a steady rate in the near and long-term future for several reasons.

Notably:

  • Nine out of ten providers using patient monitoring devices intend to continue this practice in the near future.
  • Patients have embraced health-monitoring devices.
  • Factors such as ease-of-use and convenience, coupled with fewer concerns about sharing personal health data with providers have contributed to the upward usage trend.
  • When surveyed, nearly 8 in 10 patients in the United States said they would be willing to share personal data with medical practitioners for purposes of improving health care.
  • More than half of patients surveyed said they would gladly contribute personal health data to medical research initiatives.

Using Social Media to Predict Health Trends

Researchers and scientists have used web data to predict diverse health trends with a high degree of accuracy. Here is a small sampling of these predictive health initiatives:

  • Ahead of New York’s 2011-2012 flu season, social media data helped researchers predict the prevalence of flu outbreaks. This approach had a higher degree of accuracy compared to Google’s attempts using search query data.
  • Researchers tracked adverse effects associated with 23 prescription medications by collecting and analyzing 60,000 tweets over a six-month period. They found that approximately 5,000 of the examined tweets described known side effects, accurately.
  • In the aftermath of the 2015 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, researchers used social media data to predict how the virus would spread. A National Science Foundation Rapid Response Grant (RAPID) helped researchers from Florida Atlantic University develop a predictive model, based on data sourced from Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
  • Data from Twitter helped a research team spot connections between the number of allergy-related tweets, U.S. pollen counts, and the use of antihistamine medications.
  • Twitter data has also been instrumental in tracking diverse health conditions in various parts of the world. For example, NowTrending.HHS.gov successfully tracked 234 terms related to 27 health conditions over two years by collecting and analyzing approximately 4.1 million tweets.

Disseminating Health Information and Data to the Public

Digital health portals and social media networks are now essential platforms for publishing valuable public health research. Using the power of digital platforms, health organizations – like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – continue to develop smart strategies and tactics that inform and engage targeted audiences in sharing prevention and treatment messages.

Proving the need for trustworthy, online health information:

  • In 2015, the CDC reportedly received nearly one billion page views to its website, including nearly 29 million page views to CDC en Español.
  • The CDC maintains accounts on Twitter with 4.5 million followers including 36,000 CDC en Español followers.
  • Its Facebook page has more than 1.6 million followers, and over a 75,000 fans of CDC en Español.

These digital platforms enable the CDC to greatly expand its reach with important health campaigns. A few successful examples:

The “One & Only Campaign” to increase awareness on safe injection practices and preventing outbreaks associated with unsafe injections. This campaign consists of content translated into different languages, videos, and infographics distributed mostly via social networking sites.

The “Act Against AIDS” campaign. This public health project aims to lower the risk of HIV infections—especially among the hardest hit populations. Videos, infographics, posters, and social media hashtags are among the tools used to inform and engage audiences. AIDS awareness, prevention, testing, and treatment are the key objectives.

The “Tips From Former Smokers” initiative educates the public about long-term effects of cigarette smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke. One powerful aspect of this campaign is the use of real stories from people living with smoking diseases and disabilities. According to the CDC, this campaign has motivated 1.64 million people to stop smoking since its launch in 2012.

The “Inside Knowledge: Get the Facts about Gynecologic Cancer” campaign has shared reliable, vital information since its launch in 2010. This cancer education initiative has received more than 5.3 million online impressions, and has received an abundance of free media coverage through TV, radio, and newspapers.

Conclusion

Digital data sourced from social media and the internet play a significant role in the prediction and detection of health trends, such as flu outbreaks.

Organizations including the CDC use these platforms to educate the public on diverse health issues.