What is the role of social media in health policy?

By Sabine Vuik, Policy Fellow and Head of Analytics, Centre for Health Policy, Institute of Global Health Innovation

inforgraphics_110061949-1115-allint-2_lBig data and advanced data mining methods are becoming a crucial element of everyday life, business and research. The new insights that these methods can provide have allowed many different industries to find new opportunities, products and markets.

The new EPSRC Centre for Mathematics of Precision Healthcare which will launch on Wednesday 23rd November, aims to bring these methods into healthcare.

Precision Healthcare uses big data and mathematics to provide unprecedented insights into individual and population health.  The Centre will link up mathematical, computational and medical departments from Imperial, to bridge traditional silos and drive innovation in this area.

Social media and health policy

The Institute of Global Health Innovation, as one of the founders of the Centre, will contribute to research on social media and its role in healthcare policy communication. My role within the new centre will be to conduct evidence based research within the Social network analysis for health policy theme (one of six research themes).

Communicating health messages to the public is complex, as the topics are often complicated and of high importance. Social media can play an important role both in disseminating messages, and in understanding the public’s opinions and interactions with the information.

Healthcare companies, governments, public health organisations as well as the general public all use social media such as Twitter to spread information. Using network analysis, conversations on Twitter can be analysed to see who is broadcasting information, how this information spreads over the network and what the different opinions and reactions are.

A previous collaboration between IGHI and the Department of Mathematics analysed the Care.data debate on Twitter. It found that there were three distinct communities involved in the debate: healthcare professionals, data activists and political parties. While information disseminated widely within each community, there was little overlap between the groups. As a result, information can get ‘trapped’ and become one-sided.

These insights are crucial in developing health policy, and for communicating policy messages to the public. Reactions on social media can be used as feedback. Insight into the flow of information can be used to develop a targeted marketing strategy, reaching the different communities with tailored messaging.

Other topics that the EPSRC Centre for Mathematics of Precision Healthcare will explore include clustering of symptoms in disease progression, patient journeys and transitions, integrating imaging and omics data for disease characterisation, predicting health behaviours, and contact networks in infection control.

Get involved

To find out more about the new centre, visit their website and also sign up for their launch event on 23rd November – full details here.

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