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You know that social media is getting mainstreamed in medicine when the Annals of Internal Medicine publishes a study about its use in healthcare.  Although this study is small and of short duration, it is, nevertheless, important because it is a peer-reviewed article appearing in a well-respected medical journal, such as the Annals.

The study, titled Social Networking Technologies as an Emerging Tool for HIV Prevention” was carried out by a UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine researcher, Sean D. Young, PhD, MD (Department of Family Medicine). The goal was to test the “feasibility, acceptability, and effectiveness of using social networking sites (specifically Facebook) to increase HIV prevention and testing.”  The study design was based on the known effectiveness of using community peer-leaders to change social norms related to HIV, such as increased use of condoms and decreased unprotected anal intercourse.


Here is what they did

They recruited 18 peer leaders from the study population of Los Angeles based African American and Latino men who had sex with other men (MSM).  These peer leaders had to meet the inclusion criteria of being friendly, well respected, African American or Latino MSMs aged at least 18 years old.  They had to have had sex with a man within 12 months, have a Facebook account or being willing to create one, and being interested in educating others about health.  18 such men were identified and put through training on how to effectively use Facebook for health (and HIV prevention) education.  16 peer leaders finished the training and were randomly assigned to provide HIV prevention health education (the intervention group) or general health education (the control group).

Study participants were recruited from online and community venues “frequented by African American and Latino MSM.  They had to pass a website screening (“Facebook Connect”) and they had to fill out a 92-item survey [geez, it’s a wonder they got anyone to do this!!].  112 “valid” participants were randomly assigned to either an HIV prevention or a general health education group.  The groups were similar in most measured characteristics, however the control group has more single participants (92% vs 75%) and the intervention group had more persons who completed postsecondary education (65% vs 56%).

The peer-leaders spent the next 12-weeks communicating via Facebook messages, chats and wall posts.

The predefined primary intervention end-points were as follows:

  • Requesting a free home-based HIV testing kit
  • Returning the kit
  • Following up on the test results

Here are the secondary end-points:

  • Self-reported reduction in number of sexual partners, and
  • Observed and self-reported communication using the social networking community


Here is what they found

  • Participation and engagement of participants were high throughout the study duration, although it was somewhat higher in the intervention vs the control group.
  • The most important finding was that more intervention participants, those that received HIV prevention education, requested an HIV testing kit than controls by 44% (25 of 57 vs. 11 of 55).
  • Also, of the 25 intervention participants that requested a testing kit, 9 returned it and 8 followed up to obtain results [who was that guy who tested and then didn’t care about the result?]  This is compared to only 2 of the 11 control participants that requested a kit returning it (neither of which bothered to get the results.)
  • Another finding in favor of the intervention group was that the median number of sexual partners within 3 months decreased more in the intervention group (-2) than in the control group (-1)

To me, the beauty of this study is that a relatively inexpensive intervention – peer leaders using social media – had such a large impact. If this result holds up in a larger and longer study, the impact in population-at -risk healthcare behaviors is potentially huge. Because so much of healthcare is behaviorally based – ranging from sexual practices to eating patterns to bad and good drug-taking behaviors, think of what could happen if the power of social media was effectively applied to health and health care. To quote my granddaughters, this could be awesome!


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