Making Health Care For Children Social

In one of the more exciting chats engaged by the Health Care Social Media (#HCSM) group on Twitter, the gathering began discussing how to integrate social media for better health care for children. Many of the ideas proposed there got our blogging team thinking about ways to create a framework that taps the enthusiasm of youth for gaming and social tools while recasting health care into their lives. Our consensus was that this effort, in whatever form it ultimately takes, should ideally begin early and embrace the sick and healthy alike. What follows is an initial snapshot of what this kid-focused program could look like. We invite your ideas to expand and improve what we have carved out here.

One of the most important points of agreement relates to design. Specifically, whatever is conceived must have buy-in from children and that requires their input.  Whether considering their health-based goals (e.g. to feel better, be stronger, etc.) to the types of social media support they prefer, each of these choices should be driven by youngsters themselves.  By front-loading any health care initiative with pediatric patient opinions, success is more easily ensured. Moreover, it is important to know where parents and children are in their health knowledge, so a needs assessment should be performed at the start.

Secondly, the aim of such ventures should be long-term outcome improvement. This includes healthy patient goals too. By starting early and measuring impact on child-based health goals through social media tools and support, lasting influences can be accurately measured. What may be a short-term goal may evolve into a different health goal as the child progresses and develops. Whatever the source of the initial engagement, that first step which ignites health care interest may be supported through social tools. Moreover, enhancing health care goals becomes easier when supported by parents, so the long-term view should incorporate their involvement.

Given the differing needs and interests of children across their age groups, consider the following age junctures below where social media may be harnessed for better health care:

Children 4-9
For this age group, parents will likely play a larger role in governing what tools, social or otherwise, will be integrated for their child’s care. That being said, children are often early adopters of technology and report what they like (and don’t like) to their parents. That is a perfect opportunity to begin brainstorming ways to marry the love of tech with improving health.  Imagine any of the following:

  • Counting games that embrace technology could be tied to daily meals (e.g. how many fruits have you eaten today?) and associated with praise from cartoon characters.
  • Gaming exercise and nutrition: Creating games that allow for peer-to-peer competition revolving around healthy behavior can provide the right kind of competition. This can even include providing philanthropy toward a larger goal (e.g. Club Penguin’s Coins for Change)
  • Integrating cartoons and web comics into storylines that still focus on plot, but weave in healthful messages (e.g.  Phineas & Ferb turn the tables on Candice by adopting healthy behaviors that outsmart her)

Children 10-12
For this group, the “coolness” factor is paramount, so integrating healthful behaviors into games they already play is crucial for buy-in.  Granted, tweens should be consulted to determine how a social media program should be designed to cater to their needs. However, given that it is easier to swim downstream, we favor building in health-oriented pursuits into tween-approved games and already popular web venues.  Asking tweens how to incorporate their health-based goals makes this task easier and more likely to succeed. Expanding on this idea, if every social aspect of a child’s life were examined for health-oriented inclusion, there are plenty of ways to impact their idea of health:

  • Summer Camp: maintain networks of friends post-camp to encourage healthy behaviors, and in the case of children with pre-existing conditions, support positive disease maintenance activities. Providing music card rewards, game points or bragging rights to the “healthiest” camp group can be built into the design as incentives.
  • Video Games: Earning points for adhering to a disease treatment regimen, or enhancing one’s clout on a gaming site for such behavior is an easy tie-in.
  • Texting: Harnessing this activity with check-ins that support disease treatment compliance or physical exercise are possibilities. One can imagine a scavenger hunt involving texting to report location-based clues that earn points/rewards.

While the ideas noted above can also be applied to the teen audience, their sophisticated entertainment palette also allows for greater innovation.

  • iPhone/Android phone apps:  Tying in healthful regimens to apps to earn tickets to sport/music events can encourage healthy behavior.
  • YouTube: This medium can be championed to encourage teens to design their best PSA on anti-smoking, anti-drug, unprotected sex, etc. Contests involving PSAs can be created to earn teens iTunes music cards and other sought after rewards.
  • Online communities: Group-based incentives involving trips or donations toward a favored charity can be aligned with healthy behaviors that require group achievement in some healthful measure.
  • School-based communities: By tapping a teen’s sport or social group colleagues, their encouragement regarding healthy goals could be mutually supported and measured—support that could also include rewards for positive team behavior. For example, tennis member Sandy needs help with her serve. Fellow team member Jennifer practices with Sandy who records her pal’s help for team points.

As previously mentioned, parents can get the ball rolling early with their kids. As a start, parents should ask pediatricians for their suggestions of recommended web sites that bear  positive health messaging. Yet, as is often the case, it may be the children who end up being the driving catalyst for improved family health.  Accordingly, not only should the health of children be measured, but that of their parents too.

While the outline above is just a sketch of what can be done using social media for improved health care among kids, we invite everyone to chime in about what they’d like to see.

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