Internet and Social Media are a Growing Source of Health Information

Social media is used by 23 of the top 50 global pharmaceutical manufacturers, according to a study conducted by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. The use of social media by people to obtain information about healthcare is rising, but is not used by the individuals with the most need; individuals over 65 and with multiple chronic health conditions. Care givers to these individuals though are found to use social media to help these individuals with their treatments. The greatest source of information for people who use social media turns out to be Wikipedia, and there is a correlation between increased visits to Wikipedia pages for specific diseases and conditions and the use of the drugs to treat those disease and conditions, according to the study.

Pharma’s Use

Of the 23 companies using social media, only 10 utilize all three channels studied; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “Many companies are using social media primarily as a unilateral broadcasting channel to physicians and patients, with limited interaction and discussion,” according a release summarizing the study’s findings. Mid-size companies are using social media as effectively as or more effectively than the large manufacturers, with the exception of Johnson and Johnson, which leads in all three measures of social media use; reach, relevance, and relationship, the study found. The reach index measures the number of people reached by a social media channel. The relevance index measures whether people found material on the site relevant and useful based on the number of times content is shared, and the relationship index measures the amount of back and forth conversation between the company and its customers.

Patient’s Use

Current estimates are that between 70 and 75 percent of people seek health care information from the internet, according to Pew Research Report. Search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo are used by 77 percent of people when they are looking for health information according to the Pew study. Social media sites, though, are used more by younger people than older people. Recent surveys indicate that 89 percent of 18 to 29 year olds use social media compared to just 43 percent of people over the age of 65. Age is one of the few differentiating factors for the usage of social media sites. No particular gender or stratification of education, income or other forms of social advantage has been found to use social media sites more than the other.


In 2012, 72 percent of Americans with Internet access searched online for health care information and the single leading source of healthcare information for patients and healthcare professionals was Wikipedia. “The top 100 Wikipedia pages for health care topics were accessed, on average 1.9 million times over the last year, ranging from 4.2 million for tuberculosis to 1.3 million for acne vulgaris,” according to the study. The IMS study also found that the rarer the diseases the higher the frequency of visits to that Wikipedia page. Nearly 50 percent of physicians in the U.S., who go online to find professional information use Wikipedia for information, especially specific conditions, according to citation from Manhattan Research in the IMS study.

The study examined the correlation between 389 types of prescriptions and unit sales and the number of views of a Wikipedia page for the disease or condition treated. In all instances, there was a correlation between the number of Wikipedia page visits and an increase in the number of prescriptions written. For instance, insomnia had a total of 2.3 million page visits from September 2011 to June 2013. The sales of tranquilizers and anti-migraine preparations increased one month before there is an increase in the number of Wikipedia page view for insomnia.

Interestingly, the study found that the content on the health condition Wikipedia pages are changed quite frequently, on average between 16 and 46 times per month, and there have been 17,000 changes that are classified as major changes on the Wikipedia page for five common conditions. One physician, who is an editor and administrator of Wikipedia, is responsible for a majority of the changes to these pages. The study found that “none of the traditional stakeholders for patient information—such as regulator and pharmaceutical companies—is actively engaged in the development of information or ensuring its correctness” on Wikipedia pages.

“Increasingly patients are turning to social media as an essential forum for obtaining and sharing information related to their health,” said Murray Aitken, executive director of IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. “This trend only heightens the need for relevant, accurate content,” he concluded.