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At least on paper the World Health Organization (WHO) constitutes the foremost authority when it comes to public health. According its own website the organisation is “responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.” (quote from WHO.int/about)

Having worked for the organisation on several occasions, WHO is in my opinion not always living up to their foremost authority status. And when it comes to exploring the use of social media in public health they have definitely not been front-runners but rather seriously been lacking behind.

All though WHO has applauded their own use of social media (eg. in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization), I believe that they until recently have taken their mouth a little full when doing so. As I mentioned in my blog post A very non-social media article about the World Health Organization, public health and social mediasocial media was definitely not a part of my world as a WHO professional staff member. It was never encouraged used or explored. And even though the organisation is now a frequent tweeter on @WHO and have profiles on both Facebook and YouTube, I still miss more integration of social media in WHO’s work and traditional communication channels like Bulletin of the World Health Organization. But most importantly I miss seeing them integrate social media into their technical work, research and research communication.

Changes happening?

But changes might be happening, and even slow starters can get going. I was therefore happy to read the blog post WHO Finds Social Media Indispensable in Managing Global Health Crises by David J Olsen. David Olsen have visited WHO’s Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC) and talked to Christine Feig, WHO’s head of communications and Sari Setiogi, a WHO social media officer, about the organisation’s use of social media. Christine Feig describes how social media has fundamentally changed WHO health surveillance and gives examples from the response to the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima radiation crisis of 2011. Social media officer Sari Setiogi (on of two social media officers in the entire organisation) even acknowledges that WHO have perhaps not been among the fastest to adopt social media, but that they during the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 “learned their lesson the hard way” by totally ignoring social media. And according to Sai Setiogi, social media is likely to become a bigger and bigger component in WHO’s work.

Where is the technical staff?

So WHO has taken on social media. They (or at least their communication department) are actively communicating to and with the public and they are analyzing and identifying trends on Twitter and Facebook with relevance for public health (eg. the fast spreading misconceptions of intake of iodine during the Fukushima radiation crisis).

Using social media not just for mass communication but also for research is refreshing to see. What I miss from David Olsen’s post is however the voice of the WHO technical staff. It is natural to approach the communication department when wanting to learn more about an organisation’s use of social media, and if anyone in the organisation should using social media it is the communication people, right? But what about other staff members? What about the technical staff? And how about the managerial level? Are they blogging, tweeting, members of LinkedIn groups etc.? Giving the voice only to the communication department makes me wonder:

  • Is the use of social media in WHO something confined to the communication department?
  • Is it only used for the management of global health crises, or does it go beyond catastrophes?
  • Is social media a tool used by for example the department of Non-communicable diseases when doing research or providing technical guidance and support?
  • Does the professional staff of Roll Back Malaria (WHO’s malaria programme) blog about their work?
  • Is the director of Health System Financing on Twitter?
  • Does the mental health department staff participate in Twitter discussions?

WHO’s technical staff might very well be using social media (even though it isn’t mentioned, doesn’t mean that it is not happening). Perhaps they are encouraged to do so, perhaps they are doing it on their own initiative. Perhaps there are regional differences (which is the case for many issues in WHO) and even differences from country office to country office in the use of social media for science communication. In any case, I really would encourage WHO to open its eyes to social media as a tool not just for communicating health messages and analysing influenza trends and misconceptions of iodine intake, but also as a means of science communication. As several examples on this blog shows there are lots of opportunities worth exploring. By taking on the challenge WHO could potentially also in the area of social media and public health science communication become an organisation “providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.”