A biweekly publication for faculty and staff

Grad Student to Present Findings on Social Media in Health Care

April 21, 2015

Holly RusThe use of images and direct questions by health communicators on Facebook tends to increase user engagement, though linking to external websites and videos does not. Posts conveying positive emotions have no clear impact on engagement, while negative ones — including expressions of depression, sadness, doubt, fear, hopelessness, anxiety and anger — generate an increase in user comments.

Those were a few of the results of a study on social media and health communications by UC Merced Ph.D. student Holly Rus, who will present her findings today as part of the 36th annual Meeting & Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in San Antonio.

Working with Professor Linda Cameron, Rus conducted an analysis of more than 500 posts on diabetes-related support pages on Facebook. The researchers looked for attributes in posts that could be used to predict not just overall user engagement, but specific types of engagement.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Posts with images had more than four times as many likes and 11 times as many shares as those without.
  • Messages of support or encouragement and posts soliciting input both had more than twice as many comments as those without.
  • Emotionally positive posts — including hope, optimism, humor, happiness, benefit finding and gratitude — did not predict any particular engagement, while negative ones generated a roughly threefold increase in comments.
  • Posts about the possible consequences of diabetes generated more than twice as many shares as those without, while the use of external links predicted fewer likes and shares.

Social Media a Significant Resource

It’s clear that social media has the potential to be a significant resource for health communicators and for patients and their supporters. Rus said her study is a step toward a better understanding of how to make this growing form of health communication more effective.

“Ultimately we aimed to figure out which ingredients of online health messages were most likely to engage users,” she said. “Doing this will help us better understand if and how social media can best be used in health care.”

Rus’ study received special recognition from SBM, being chosen as a Citation Abstract and a Meritorious Student Abstract. An enlarged version of her abstract will be on display during one of the poster sessions at the annual meeting. 

Cameron’s research focuses on health communications and psychosocial interventions for individuals who have or are at risk for illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. She’s part of a thriving group of UC Merced professors studying health psychology, a rapidly emerging field examining the interactions between behavior and physical health.

Cameron said this research could have significant implications in an area of ever-increasing importance.

“The big-picture question is how we can best harness social media to improve health care,” Cameron said. “Social media is a huge resource that people are increasingly using to gather health information. How can we shape these messages to increase engagement and encourage better health behaviors? If we want to be effective, we have to attract people to the message and have those people pass it around.”