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Study finds Facebook a terrible place to search for health information

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In a CVS Caremark study revealing the obvious, Harvard University, Brigham, and Women’s Hospital researchers have found that social networks are not a good place to search for health information. Focusing on diabetes, the researchers examined the 15 largest Facebook communities dedicated to the disease. These communities averaged 9,289 members; 690 wall postings from 480 unique users were studied. Most of the postings were by people sharing personal stories on how to cope or pushing off-market drugs.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 66 percent of posts described personal experiences living with diabetes.
  • 24 percent shared information that researchers deemed unlikely to be shared with a doctor, like alcohol and carbohydrate management.
  • 29 percent of posts were intended to show emotional support.
  • 13 percent provided specific feedback to information requests.
  • 27 percent of posts were promoting non-FDA approved products, sometimes with personal testimonials

“Social media is an evolving forum that clearly is attractive to people looking to share information and to find support and strategies for living with chronic disease,” said Troyen A. Brennan, MD, MPH, executive vice president and chief medical officer of CVS Caremark. “This study shows the many ways that patients are benefitting from social networks but it is critically important for patients to understand the need for fact-checking.”

While the fact that a quarter of posts are promoting products is disturbing, little else should be of surprise to those who understand social media. Facebook communities, like any online community, are designed to allow individuals to communicate with others who share their interest (or disease). Sharing personal experiences is perfectly normal. It is, of course, important to be careful what information you trust from the web. You never do know exactly who gave it to you.

Have you discussed health topics on Facebook? Is it a good place for this kind of thing? Is it even safe to use computers to look up health information? After all, computers may be killing you.