‘We can have a better understanding on the system of factors that we can leverage for improving health outcomes’
NEW YORK – As social networks become ubiquitous, it was inevitable that they would impact health care. Madalina Sucala, manager of behavioral science at Johnson & Johnson, has studied the ways people use social networks to manage disease or promote healthy behaviors, and she sees their potential in helping people take more control of their health.
HHTN: Why are social networks important in improving patient health?
SUCALA: Social networks can positively impact our health, and there are studies indicating that such networks have a role in reducing certain risk behaviors, such as smoking. Recognizing that behavior can spread and cascade across social networks, researchers are now focusing on how to leverage the effect of such networks to promote healthy behaviors. By acknowledging the role of social networks and studying their impact on health, we can have a better understanding on the system of factors that we can leverage for improving health outcomes.
HHTN: How do social networks support patients?
SUCALA: Social networks can be supported virtually and social media is becoming increasingly used as a platform for such networks. For example, users can benefit from joining health specific groups, where they can find resources and support to help them manage their health better. In addition to social media options, there are various other health information platforms designed specifically to help patients connect with other patients with the same disease with whom they can share information about treatment, symptoms and outcome data. The fact that such online platforms are widely accessible across geographical barriers, and that their use can be easily embedded in people’s daily routines, turns them into potentially powerful tools for health interventions.
HHTN: What are some of the positive aspects of social networks in health care?
SUCALA: Social networks can affect health through various mechanisms. One of the most frequently cited is social support, which reduces the negative emotional consequences of an illness, rendering someone better able to care for themselves, or by practical means, such as helping someone remember to take their medication or cook meals to help them adhere to a healthy diet. Social networks can also impact their members’ health through social influence or social norms, which can promote a health behavior such as exercise, and curb an unhealthy one such as smoking.
Additionally, social networks can improve a person’s capability to manage their health by increasing their knowledge self-efficacy and skills to manage their symptoms or change their behavior. Research indicates that individuals with higher levels of knowledge, skill and confidence in managing their health have better health outcomes and incur lower costs.
Beyond patient-to-patient interaction, the patient-provider interaction is another influencer. Technology can support this interaction by providing important health information and context to increase trust, relevance and optimization of treatment.
HHTN: Do you think health care providers will ever prescribe the use of social networks to patients?
SUCALA: That will likely depend on two factors. The first would be the existence of a significant body of research indicating what type, format and mechanisms of social networks are effective in engaging patients and in changing their health outcomes of interest. If technology emerges as an efficient platform for such networks, and if it becomes necessary or beneficial for providers to use such technology, then a second point becomes relevant. In this case, we have to realize that if such technology is going to be used, it has to align with providers’ daily routines and workflows. Technologies not aligned with the realities of providers’ routines may decrease their ability to appropriately use it, raising the potential for unintended consequences, such as provider burnout. At Johnson & Johnson, we consider that the health care provider’s state of wellbeing is critically undervalued as a contributor to their ability to deliver optimal care and to the quality of the patient-provider interaction. Thus, technology should be used to optimize workflow, information delivery and process efficiency, and should be used to support and enhance patient-provider interaction.