Letters from Maine

Under the influence


I don’t know how successful you have been at getting your adolescent patients to follow your suggestions, but I would guess that my batting average was in the low 100s. Even when I try stepping off my soapbox to involve the patient in a nonjudgmental dialogue, my successes pale in comparison to my failures.

Vladimir Vladimirov/E+/Getty Images

Just looking at our national statistics for obesity, it’s pretty obvious that we are all doing a pretty rotten job of modifying our patients behaviors. You could point to a few encouraging numbers but they are few and far between. You could claim correctly that by the time a child reaches preschool, the die is already cast, throw up your arms, and not even raise the subject of diet with your overweight teenage patients.

A recent article in the journal Appetite hints at a group of strategies for molding patient behavior that so far have gotten very little attention from physicians (“Do perceived norms of social media users eating habits and preferences predict our own food consumption and BMI?” Appetite. 2020 Jan 18. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.104611). Researchers at the department of psychology at Ashton University in Birmingham, England, surveyed more than 350 college-age students asking them about the dietary preference of their Facebook contacts and their own dietary habits. What the investigators found was that respondents who perceived their peers ate a healthy diet ate a healthier diet. Conversely, if the respondents thought their social media contacts ate junk food, they reported eating more of an unhealthy diet themselves.

In other words, it appears that, through social media, we have the potential to influence the eating habits of our patients’ peers. Before we get too excited, it should be pointed out that this study from England wasn’t of a long enough duration to demonstrate an effect on body mass index. And another study of 176 children recently published in Pediatrics found that while influencer marketing of unhealthy foods increased children’s immediate food intake, the equivalent marketing of healthy foods had no effect (“Social influencer marketing and children’s food intake: A randomized trial.” Pediatrics. 2019 Apr 1. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-2554).

Not being terribly aware of the whos, whats, and wheres of influencers, I did a little bit of Internet searching at the Influencer Marketing hub and learned that influencers comes in all shapes and sizes, from “nanoinfluencers” who have acknowledged expertise and a very small Internet following numbering as few as a hundred to “megainfluencers” who have more than a million followers and might charge large entities a million dollars for a single post. The influencer’s content could appear as a blog, a YouTube video, a podcast, or simply a social media post.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The field of influencer marketing is new and growing exponentially. We would be wise as a group and as individuals to learn as much as we can about how we can use influencers to promote healthy behaviors. This initiative could come in the form of an office dedicated to Influencer Marketing created by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That group could search for megainfluencers who might be funded by the academy. But it also could develop a handbook for individual practitioners and groups to help them identify nano- and micro- (1,000-40,000 followers) influencers in their own practices.

You probably don’t ask your patients about their social media habits other than to caution them about time management. Maybe it’s time to dig a little deeper. You may find that you have a potent influencer hidden in your practice. She or he might just be willing to spread a good word or two for you.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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