A new survey from comms giant Weber Shandwick profiling how U.S. adults access, use and feel about health-related information finds that most American social media users who regularly seek health information are concerned about incorrect or misleading medical information on social media—and few have found health information on social media to be accurate.
The Weber survey, The Great American Search for Healthcare Information, in partnership with KRC Research, focused on Healthcare Information Seekers—those Americans who look for health-related information at least once per year, excluding doctor appointments. This large-scale study of Americans was designed to help communicators and marketers in the health sector guide their strategic and tactical content decisions.
“In a time of information-overload and cynicism inflamed by ‘fake news,’ communicators and marketers face new and unique challenges around how to effectively engage with their customers,” said Laura Schoen, president of Weber’s Global Healthcare Practice, in a news release. “But as the demand for online information grows, and as the landscape continues to be increasingly muddied by inaccurate—and at times dangerous—information, the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors have a greater responsibility than ever before to find ways to create and deliver engaging, relevant and factual information.”
Americans have healthy doses of skepticism about health information on social media
Two-thirds of American Healthcare Information Seekers (67 percent) report that they see health information on social media. The types of information they see on social media are mostly wellness advice (56 percent) and advertisements for treatments or medications (52 percent).
Seeing is not necessarily believing, however. More than eight in 10 Healthcare Information Seekers who have seen health information on social media (83 percent) say they are concerned about incorrect or misleading medical information. Only 35 percent report that, in their experience, the information is mostly accurate. Slightly more, 38 percent, say they have no idea of its veracity and 27 percent say it is mostly inaccurate. These numbers indicate that people are exposed to health information through social media, but recognize how hard it is to know what is true, especially in the face of complex information and seemingly conflicting facts or studies.
Particularly compelling about this data is that concerns about and experiences with accuracy of social health information are consistent across generations. For example, the youngest cohort in our study, Gen Z, is just as likely to be concerned about incorrect or misleading information as the much older Boomer generation (91 percent and 87 percent, respectively). This suggests that social media comfort and proficiency do not have a bearing on perceptions of legitimacy, leading to the conclusion that it is the content or channel that is the challenge for health-related information communicators.
While health information on social media has a credibility problem, Healthcare Information Seekers exposed to it identify several solutions for instilling more confidence: social healthcare information should be cited by a medical professional (43 percent), it should cite a scientific study (38 percent), it should be associated with a trusted brand (37 percent) and it should be cited by a trusted school or research organization (36 percent). The findings show a demand and opportunity for medical information on social media to be verified by respected third-party sources.
Medical professionals—not necessarily doctors—provide the most satisfactory information
When it comes to satisfactory experiences with the information sources that are used, medical professionals far surpass any other source. At the very top of the list that users of health information were ‘very satisfied’ with are physician’s assistants/nurses and eye doctors (tied at 66 percent).
Medical information websites fall just below average in terms of satisfaction (39 percent) despite their widespread use by 53 percent of Healthcare Information Seekers. This disparity may point to a significant opportunity for these platforms to demonstrate that there are medical professionals “behind” the content.
Physicians may have a Millennial problem
The Millennial generation is least likely to be very satisfied with the information provided by medical doctors. In evaluating other attitudes toward physicians, the study suggests that doctors may be contending with a Millennial trust challenge. In addition to their lower satisfaction levels with information from doctors (on a basis relative to other generations), Millennials are the least likely generation to say they always listen to their doctor(s), the most likely to believe that online health-related information is as reliable as that from medical professionals and the most likely to say they trust their peers more than medical professionals.
A guide to engaging Americans with healthcare information
There is a ravenous appetite for healthcare information in the United States today. Healthcare and biopharmaceutical companies and brands should recognize that a sizeable majority of Americans are seeking health information.
“Healthcare companies need to realize that the proliferation of misinformation and lack of trust online is actually an opportunity,” said Stacey Bernstein, executive vice president and global director of digital health at Weber Shandwick, in the release. “As some of the most information-rich, research-driven organizations in the world, they are poised perhaps better than anyone else to provide the credible and relevant information that consumers are so actively seeking.”
Based on its research, Weber Shandwick recommends basic guidelines for successfully interacting with customers. Below are a sample of guidelines; more can be found in our full report.
- Design your content for discovery. Consumers find healthcare information in a variety of places. By building content that is discoverable across multiple channels – online and offline – you can intersect your customers across their journey and ensure that they find the credible information they’re looking for.
- Use succinct, clear and plain language in your communications. Recognize that people are swimming in information and overwhelmed by the volume, creating confusion and perceptions of conflicting facts.
- Customize your approaches. Although there is surprisingly little difference in the number of Healthcare Information Seekers across generations, Gen Z and Millennials have different medical needs than Boomers and the Silent/Greatest generation, so content should deliver against those unique experiences. Further, Americans respect specialized expertise: different sources are credible on different health topics/issues.
- Prove your online credibility from the outset. Trust is earned, and there’s an uphill battle to be fought to convince customers that information online, especially found on social media, is credible and trustworthy. Showcase your research-driven approach, include validation from medical professionals and experts, and bring your partners into the fold. Shore up attention-getting and awareness-building communications via social media channels with supporting evidence and facts from credible sources.
- Provide medical doctors with support to find ways to build trust with Millennials. A perception that peers are as capable as doctors of providing healthcare information, or potentially that healthcare information can be “crowdsourced,” is concerning. Physicians need to understand the root cause of this sentiment and address it before it is too late.
Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, conducted a 20-minute national survey of 1,700 American adults age 18 and over. The sample was drawn from a large national consumer panel, and conducted both online and by telephone to reach seniors 65 years and older. Data was weighted to be demographically representative of U.S. adults based on Census reference data. Interviews took place from May 14 – June 1, 2018. We defined “health-related information” at the outset of the survey as “information about physical or mental health, healthcare, and health insurance.” The generations that are reported in the study are defined by Pew Research as follows: Gen Z: ages 18-21; Millennial: ages 22-37; Gen X: ages 38-53; Baby Boomer: ages 54-72; Silent/Greatest: ages 73+. Healthcare Information Seekers are defined as those who report they have looked for health-related information at least once during the past year, excluding doctor appointments.