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June - 2010 - issue > Technology
Preventive Healthcare Through Social Networking
Subhash K Parameswaran
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Social networking is replacing several traditional forms of contact management through its ability to quickly create significant impact on targeted populations. The recent decision by Pepsi to avoid Super Bowl advertising to focus on social networking advertising is an example. Even though some attempts have been made by a few health insurance companies, enough attention has not been paid to the use of social networking sites in this direction. With increasing healthcare costs ruling the headlines these days, it is important that healthcare companies evaluate the use of social networking features to promote preventive care.

Why Focus on Preventive Healthcare?

Most healthcare debates focus on how to reduce the administrative costs incurred by the insurance companies. However, insurance companies claim that about 85 percent of their premium revenues go back into paying for services and only 15 percent of the total revenue is spent on administration overhead and profits. Hence, even a small percentage of reduction in the service provider costs can significantly reduce the overall price of healthcare. Lifestyle choices and proper preventive health measures can significantly reduce the number of incidents for members, thus contributing to the cost savings.

How Does Social Networking Help in Improving Preventive Healthcare?

It has been proven in the past, by the likes of Weight Watchers Clubs, that social pressure definitely helps to improve lifestyle. A large percentage of the population may not wish to disclose their weight or eating habits to the public, or even to friends. But the anonymity offered in these forums will very likely improve the participation and produce impressive results. A few such applications of social networking in improving overall health of members are discussed below.

Sharing of Health Tips

Create a social networking site where members can share tips on health and wellness. The content can be monitored by qualified physicians for accuracy and also to ensure that the comments are appropriate. These physicians can also append their own suggestions on the tips. Information such as calories contained in common foods, recommended portions for specific diets, and easy cures for common illnesses can also be shared through this site. Magazines already provide similar columns by physicians and this would be more attractive on a website.

Chronic Disease Specific Communities

Communities can be created within social networking sites for people suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes. These can be promoted through organizations such as the American Diabetes Association and can provide information specific to better living conditions of patients. For example, people can share specific diet plans, common exercise options, and other lifestyle traits that will help in controlling the disease. Members can also share their own experiences with treatments and the long-term impacts that they are facing. New research and findings regarding such diseases can gain publicity through the site.

Preventive Care Reminders

As an incentive for people who sign up to such sites, insurance companies can offer preventive care reminders, such as for annual check-ups, vaccinations for kids, and breast examinations for women. Members can share anecdotes of how preventive care events helped them in identifying problems during early stages and in getting timely treatment. The forum can also have discussions on common symptoms and suggestions on when to seek professional help and treatments. The healthy baby initiative from Aetna is an example of such a program and it can be extended to social networking sites. There could also be reminders on prescription refills and even text messages that remind patients to take medication on time.

Lifestyle Communities (joggers, weight watchers, anti-smoking groups)

These communities can provide a medium for people with common interests to motivate each other. This is based on the principle of Weight Watchers Clubs where peer pressure helps people achieve difficult targets. Users can share and get information anonymously.

Provider Reviews

Social networking sites can be a platform for the members to discuss their experiences with healthcare providers. This will also help the insurance companies reduce costs when they are able to direct members to specific providers who can provide better and or cheaper services. User feedback on the site will also make sure that provider services undergo continuous improvement.

Games with A Theme on Reducing Healthcare Costs

With some creative thinking, games can be developed to keep a high interest level among members to visit these sites often. Similar to the famous Facebook game of ‘Farmville’, a game can be developed where the players get points for healthy behavior such as exercise and quitting tobacco. This will lure the members to visit the site more often and also help promote the ideas of preventive healthcare in a fun way to encourage better lifestyles.

Challenges to Consider

While the idea sounds promising, several challenges need to be considered. There could be legal issues regarding the nature of comments posted by the participants and so appropriate legal precautions and guidelines need to be incorporated into the site. Any information or comment that could damage the reputation of a service provider may invite more legal challenges and lawsuits. Privacy and security concerns could also be discouraging factors for implementing these ideas.

Another challenge is to attract the right kind of audience to this website. The social media generation of today may not be too worried about health at this time and the older generation may not be social media savvy.


Even with all the challenges, there are some good opportunities for the companies that are first movers in this area - higher participation and retention of members. In short, the early birds in implementing this technology will be able to attract a section of the younger generation to their fold.

The author is General Manager – Offshore Operations, UST Global
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