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THE USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA AMONG GHANAIAN DIETITIANS AND NUTRITIONISTS: A PERSPECTIVE

By Kawsar Adam Baninie  &  Dr. Anna Dedei Amoako-Mensah

Social media platforms have become highly popular in recent times 1. As these online platforms are fast catching up with all aspects of life today and many people depend on them for all manner of information, they present an opportunity to effectively disseminate health services and information widely – even to those in low-resource areas1, 2. What impact can these platforms have on nutrition and dietetic practice and how can our registered dietitians and nutritionists (RDNs) make full use of them? This article takes a brief look at these issues.

According to a 2022 estimate from the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 5.3 billion people worldwide actively use social media 3. In Ghana, data from Statista indicates that there were about 8.8 million social media users aged 18 and older at the beginning of 2022. Examples of popular social media platforms are listed in Table 14.

Table 1: Some popular social media platforms

Social Media PlatformsExamples
Collaborative projects platformsWikis, LinkedIn
Blogs & MicroblogsTwitter
Content CommunitiesInstagram, Pinterest
Social networking sitesFacebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat
Virtual Social WorldGaming apps
Discussion forumsWordPress, Podcast

Social Media for Health Information Search and Services

General health-related benefits of social media platforms include the sharing of information among health professionals, transfer of information from professionals to patients/clients, assessment of patients/clients’ experiences, and receiving medical lessons and alerts, among others 1,2. Although social media use in dietetic practice was found to be very young, it was found to be growing faster, according to a systematic review conducted in 2018 5. The benefits of social media platform usage to RDNs involve the creation of multiple ways to communicate and disseminate food and nutrition information 1, 5. Evidence from the literature regarding the effectiveness of social media use in dietetic practice was based on the adult population in developed countries like the U.S.A, Australia, and Canada 2. Furthermore, these platforms were proven to be effective tools (in the wake of COVID-19) for virtual nutrition counselling, patient education, peer-to-peer support, public health campaigns on topical nutritional concerns, and networking with other professionals 1, 5, 9. Some platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are quite user-friendly and can be used even by those without multimedia expertise, to produce high-quality video content. By taking advantage of these, RDNs can promote evidence-based information to help address and correct food and nutrition misinformation, provide practical advice, and market their businesses. Social media can also facilitate connections between dietitians and other influencers, enabling them to expand their professional network. This in turn can enhance the reputation of RDNs as professionals and experts in food and nutrition 8, 9.

Some studies indicate that the use of social media in professional practice is gradually gaining acceptance. For example, a report from a study in South Africa found that a majority of their participants relied on and trusted nutrition information from dietitians when using social media to search for nutrition information 10. Another study which aimed to map available literature on social media use in dietetic practice and to identify the knowledge gaps, reported an increase in the number of registered dietitians who are using social media in their practice for content creation, discussion forums, virtual social networking, social networking, and blogging 5.

Legal and Ethical Standards for Nutritionists and Dietitians on social media platforms

Notwithstanding all the benefits, social media is not without potential drawbacks for both healthcare professionals and patients. A recent systemic study conducted by Yeboah et al. (2022) in Ghana among community health officers, found that WhatsApp was the most common one used by many health professionals to assist their patients. However, since no standard policies are backing the use of these platforms for healthcare deliveries, the practice tends to be discrete, exposing them to some ethical concerns such as breaching of privacy, and peddling of false information, among others 6. While the rate of social media use in dietetic practice is gradually increasing it has generated professional ethical concerns about its use in its wake2. A common ethical problem, for example, is that widespread use of social media has led to an increase in the spread of false nutrition information and the rise of ‘pseudo-experts’, which include quackery, unqualified dietitians, and trainers. This situation places greater responsibility on RDNs to set themselves apart by disseminating accurate and evidence-based scientific information.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), in collaboration with the Commission on Dietetics Registration (CDR) developed a standard code of ethics for nutrition and dietetics professionals in the USA, to serve as a standard regulation to monitor quackery, as well as fraudulent and misleading information among professionals 1, 14. It also serves to ensure professional boundaries, content credibility, transparency, disclosure, and honesty, among members when they use social media in their practice. The Ghana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (GAND) can adopt AND/CDR standard code of ethics to serve as a guide to monitor professionals on social media platforms as they develop their standards in the future.

Strategies to Improve Social Media Use

Assessing the credibility of information online is considerably more difficult compared to conventional media like radio, TV etc. To emphasize the elements of health online, a health-promoting and empowering strategy should be geared toward improving individuals’ ability to screen and assess various information sources concerning their interests and needs. Notwithstanding, after a study in Nigeria by Iheme (2019), the researcher recommended the adaptation of certain strategies to improve quality dissemination and delivery of credible and evidence-based food and nutrition information to consumers and to prevent quacks from posting false content on social media platforms 11. The strategies mentioned include a validation or verification tick that can be used or assigned to qualified individual dieticians and associations to serve as a mark of identification to distinguish qualified experts from the quacks and increase the voices of qualified dietitians on social media sites. Also, GAND should showcase their members who are already active on their website as well as their social platforms like FB, Twitter, and IG by allocating certification to those who want to practice online. This is very important because random posts from unqualified people can easily mislead people who trust any information delivered on these platforms 10,11,13.  

RDNs must maintain their professional conduct and respect the privacy and confidentiality of their clients/patients at all times, including when using any social media platform 2,14. They should also ensure that all information, products, and services they promote are scientifically based, and always acknowledge any conflict of interest when providing services or advertising products on any social media platforms 1,14.

Recommendations

People are becoming extremely active online searching for information and ways to manage or treat their conditions as “electronic patients” 9, 15. Social media have recently become a powerful avenue for promoting products and services by influencing people’s purchasing behaviour 5. According to evidence from literature, recommendations for social media use to leaders of GAND and the professional, therefore, include, but are not limited to;

  • Inclusion of courses to train and prepare their graduates to make full and effective use of social media and its tools in the dietetic curriculum 10.  
  • The professional body of the Ghana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ought to provide members with clear guidance and training to ensure that they uphold the profession’s code of ethics at all times when they use these platforms 2.
  • RDNs encouragement to acquaint themselves with popular online discussion forums and website resources and share their views and comments on the credibility of nutritional information shared on social media platforms 2.
  • Professionals can always contact the third-party website administrator for deletion or correction of fraudulent, misleading, or false information once they are aware of comments posted on these platforms about their profession. As experts, this will ensure we take our rightful place in nutrition and health on social media platforms 15.

Conclusion

In conclusion, as experts in food and nutrition, it is therefore important for registered nutritionists and dietitians to be encouraged to take the lead in providing nutrition information and services through all social media venues to influence people’s behaviour and choices.

REFERENCES

1. Helm J, Jones RM. Practice paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Social media and the dietetics practitioner: Opportunities, challenges, and best practices. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(11):1825–35. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.003

2. Dietetic practice &  Social Media [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.collegeofdietitians.org/practice-advisory/jurisprudence-professional-practice-resources/virtual-care,-social-media-technology/dietetic-practice-and-social-media.aspx

3. Committed to connecting the world [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 25]. Available from: https://www.itu.int/

4. Sasu DD. Ghana: Active social media users 2017-2022 [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1171445/number-of-social-media-users-ghana/

5. Dumas A-A, Lapointe A, Desroches S. Users, uses, and effects of social media in Dietetic Practice: Scoping Review of the quantitative and qualitative evidence. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2018;20(2). doi:10.2196/jmir.9230

6. Martin-Yeboah E, Gyamfi S, Adu J, Owusu MF. Reconciling primary healthcare delivery with social media: A case study of Cape Coast, Ghana. International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences. 2022;16:100395. doi:10.1016/j.ijans.2022.100395

8. Bannor R, Asare AK, Bawole JN. Effectiveness of social media for Communicating Health Messages in Ghana. Health Education. 2017;117(4):342–71. doi:10.1108/he-06-2016-0024

9. Saboia I, Almeida A, Sousa P, Pernencar C. Dietitians and nutritionist’s behavior on social media: A scoping literature review. Proceedings of the 13th International Joint Conference on Biomedical Engineering Systems and Technologies. 2020; doi:10.5220/0008988305300538

10. Kreft M, Smith B, Hopwood D, Blaauw R. The use of social media as a source of nutrition information. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2023;1–7. doi:10.1080/16070658.2023.2175518

11. Iheme G. Engagement of Nutritionists/Dietitians in Social Media: A Potential to meet Consumers’ quest for healthy nutrition information and Services. Journal of Dietitians Association of Nigeria (jdan). 2018; 2141-8209.   

12. Chan T, Drake T, Vollmer RL. A qualitative research study comparing nutrition advice communicated by registered dietitians and non-registered dietitian bloggers. Journal of Communication in Healthcare. 2020;13(1):55–63. doi:10.1080/17538068.2020.1749351

13. Kabata P, Winniczuk-Kabata D, Kabata PM, Jaśkiewicz J, Połom K. Can social media profiles be a reliable source of information on nutrition and Dietetics? Healthcare. 2022;10(2):397. doi:10.3390/healthcare10020397

14. Klemm S. Guidance for professional use of social media in nutrition and dietetics practice. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2022;122(2):403–9. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.11.007

15. Hewitt-Taylor J, Bond C.S. “What E-patients Want from the Doctor-Patient Relationship: Content Analysis of Posts on Discussion Boards,” J. Med. Internet Res., vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 1–9, 2012.

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