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Social media boosts role of communication in public health

GONG HE | 2017-11-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Health consultation requires professional and authoritative sources and information, but the credibility of social media platforms is often questioned. (POHOTO: XINHUA)


Social media has provided a new platform for health communication that enables a more direct dialogue between the public and governmental health facilities, hospitals and traditional mainstream media. Information and knowledge as well as social and emotional influence can be disseminated more rapidly via social networking. At the same time, there is also a large amount of behavioral data created in virtual space that helps related parties track public health information in real time.


Limitations of social media
The ability of the public, patients and experts across the world to transcend the boundaries of space and social identity to discuss health issues has raised the question of whether the sources and information used in health consultation on social media platforms are authoritative and objective. Also, social media creates a massive aggregation of information, offers an equal opportunity for people to express themselves and decentralizes the mode of communication. All these characteristics of social media pose problems for health communication, which relies heavily on professionalism and authoritativeness.

In particular, the adoption of social media for the purposes of health communication is viewed as problematic in the following aspects: credibility, privacy, information overload, and negative guidance. It could also prevent patients from seeking effective medical treatment. Not to mention, some health agencies have yet to make full use of social media to communicate with patients and the public.

In the social media era, traditional media professionals, such as editors and reporters, are becoming less central, while the public feels increasingly free and enthusiastic about publishing information. However, the vast pool of information is also overwhelming to the general public, and sometimes it is beyond their capacity to process. After all, the public needs to verify the value and authenticity of health information that is vital to their lives on their own.

Studies have shown that the rapid growth of social media has reduced public trust in doctors. Weibo, WeChat and other online platforms contain massive amounts of false information, fear-mongering and sensationalism from popular science articles. Therefore, it’s crucial to take advantage of social media in health communication.


Humanistic care
In the 1990s, the early stage of the study of health communication in China was characterized by a lack of communication scholars studying public health. It progressed to the second stage in which research on the effect of mass communication was dominant. The field has since advanced to the third stage. In this stage, the one-way information flow has transformed into multidirectional networking. There has been a shift from a model in which various health organizations educate the public to one in which there are frequent two-way interactions between.

Hence, the main tasks of this phase are to promote a dialogue on health within families, communities and society as well as to popularize health knowledge and raise national awareness through multiple means of communication, including social media.

In November 2016, the Chinese government announced the “Healthy China 2030” plan, highlighting the importance of raising health awareness at the national strategic level. China today is facing an uneven distribution of medical resources, population aging, low health literacy and escalating doctor-patient tensions.

The plan emphasized the need to strengthen health education for the whole population and pointed out that it is important to establish a centralized system for releasing information on health and related skills to make scientific health knowledge more accessible. Media at all levels are encouraged to facilitate new media tools to expand health education.

Disease or health is never a simple concept of biology while medical care should not be oversimplified as healing the body. It is by nature aimed at improving people’s complete biological, psychological, social and mental health. In this light, public health service institutions, mainstream media, hospitals and other organizations should grasp the essence of health communication—humanistic care—and make it an important part of disease prevention, medical treatment and health education. Only when humanities, science and technology are integrated on social media can they achieve the maximum transmission effect.


Key areas to explore
At present, both international and domestic social media platform health communication research are at a preliminary stage. Most studies rely on questionnaires, experiments, case studies and other traditional health communication research methods, whereas there is insufficient attention paid to the structured, large-scale and dynamic big data.

Though the study of international health communication in the past decade has begun to focus on the large amount of data stored on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, many studies are still debating whether research should be data driven or theory driven. This article proposes three issues for research on Chinese health communication in the new period.

One is theory-driven big data health communication research. Ongoing health communication studies in China and abroad mainly apply the theory of rational behavior and planned behavior. However, in recent years, as the interdisciplinary studies emerge, such as the combination of public relations and health communication, some new theories have begun to gain popularity. One that is commonly cited is the situational theory of problem solving based on the situational theory of publics, which was proposed by James Grunig from the University of Maryland, as well as the cultural sensitivity and narrative theory.

In this light, we could argue that the value of big data lies not in the data itself, but in its ability to illuminate theory and also the relationship between data and theory.

The second is problem-oriented interdisciplinary cooperation and research. The collaboration between American cardiologist John Farquhar and Nathan Maccoby, professor of communication, was regarded as the first cooperation between medicine and communication researchers. Since then, research on the role of communication in promoting public health in the United States has become an interdisciplinary partnership between public health authorities, medicine and communication scholars.

In China, communication and public health are relatively independent disciplines. According to a study of Chinese health communication documents from 1992 to 2011 by Chinese communication scholars Chen Hong and Liang Junmin, though the lack of scholars in the field of health communication has been remedied to a degree, interdisciplinary research in China still lags behind.

In a way, big data provides a chance to develop multidisciplinary cooperation. Given the challenges of utilizing massive amounts of data—from data mining to data interpretation—joint efforts are needed from data experts, public health professionals and communication scholars to produce any kind of concrete result. No single entity can shoulder the responsibility when people’s lives and health are at stake. It will be a thorny proposition to balance the accuracy and precision of science and the efficiency of communication and dialogue.

Now that the promotion of public health has become a national priority, interdisciplinary cooperation and integration should become the new normal of health communication research. However, in the field of data research, data owners rather than researchers are calling the shots. Therefore, it is still difficult to straighten out the relationship among data providers, analysts and users.

Third is the link-based and narrative-based research path. Social media contains a complex network of information and has a far-reaching impact. It also carries a large number of messages that form narratives for observation. Research on the connections, either from a link-based or narrative-based perspective, will help to highlight the characteristics of the discourse network, such as the status of the user who participates in a topical discussion, to further analyze the identity and discourse characteristics of highly influential people who could exert great impact.

For instance, we found through social network analysis and visualization that in the August 2014 Ebola epidemic, public discussion on Twitter formed into two types of discourse networks: dense and sparse. Then, we analyzed the impact of highly influential people in health discourse networks from the perspective of structural relationship. As it turns out, the study of narrative text is conducive to understanding the framework of discourse and the mechanism of multiple meaning production.
Some researchers believe that traditional health communication emphasizes one-way education and statistical data but fails to consider the diversity of the population in terms of economic condition, culture, family history, social relations, physical environment and other differences, and all these factors directly affect people’s decision-making in information acquisition.

Going forward, researchers in the field need to pay attention to the effect of persuasion and communication of different narratives in different contexts from the perspective of a narrative-based path.


Gong He is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Xiamen University.