Some advantages of social media as a tool for public health science communication

The other day I blogged about some of the similarities I see between public health sciences and social media. Similarities which makes social media particular relevant for public health science communication.

Apart from the similarities, I have been trying to put together a list of other advantages of social media for science communication, which I can hopefully use in a report on Public Health Science Communication & Social Media. I am sure there are many more than those below so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

A flexible media

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are social networking platforms set up and created by web developers.Despite the preset features in for example Facebook, social media is characterized by its high level of flexibility. The users create the content, and new functions are constantly developed in response to the needs from the users. Blogs can for example be customized according to the requirements of the individual user and can take many different forms. In relation to science communication this presents a great opportunity to use the different tools according to the specific needs of a scientific traditions, individual scientists or research institutions.

Giving the researcher a voice

Another advantage of social media for science communication is that it gives the scientists an opportunity to become a communicator rather than leaving that to those in control of established media outlets. When relevant, the researchers can make their own voices heard and not always go through communication employees. This can for example be an advantage when communicating with other researchers where professional communicators do not have the relevant background knowledge. In combination with the great amount of flexibility in social media a communication style that supplements existing communications can be created. With for example blogs a direct relationship between the author and the reader may be established to the benefit of both the reader and the writer.

Network Building

In comparison with journals and reports social media provides the opportunity to connect and interact with the readers. Similar to what happens at conferences, the audience can ask questions directly to the author, and comment or express their views on the communicated. This can be through comment functions and retweeting on Twitter. Just like attending conferences is beneficial for extending and sustaining scientific networks, the same goes for social media. Only this can happen on a daily basis and not be a once or twice per year event. In addition, the potential network is much bigger and not limited to those who had the time or the means to travel half around the world to present a poster.

No time delay and free of charge

Publishing in scientific journals can often be a long and time-consuming process, which means that when eventually published, the study has perhaps already been finalized and closed or perhaps even outdated. The advantage of social media is that in comparison with for example peer-reviewed journals it has a much shorter time delay. This makes the media particular relevant for communicating science-in-the-making where comments, reactions and contributions from colleagues and other recipient audiences during the research process can contribute positively to the research process.

Finally, using social media comes at no extra cost. Most platforms are free of charge or has negligible costs for the users, and does thus not require big investments by neither the researcher, research institutions or the audience.

Why social media is particularly relevant for public health science communication

Social media is a gift to science communication. I am quite convinced about that. But is it particularly relevant for Public Health Science Communication?

As many of the blog posts on this blog illustrates there is huge value and potential in using social media for public health science communication. And not only to disseminate research, but to communicate with the public and fellow researchers and use it as an inspirational tool in an academic public health life – even as a tool to conduct public health research is social media useful.

If one looks across examples of use of social media in public health, it is possible to identify some similarities between public health sciences and social media. As I see it, there are a least three shared characteristics. These are: the concentration on the community and general public, the interdisciplinary profile, and the reliance on data aggregation to do research. The shared characteristics means that combining the two worlds into what one could call Public Health Science Communication 2.0 is perfectly relevant.


Public health is about people. Public health sciences is about observing people, collecting data about them, asking them, telling them, comparing them, testing them, exchanging information etc. The masses are of essence. In medicine you often deal with the individual patient, but in public health it is the larger communities and population groups that are at the core. It is through the contribution of each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed and discovered.

Social media is about people. It’s about the exchange of information. It’s not about the one person or the group of two to three, but about communities, about large population groups, about subgroups, about trends, patterns and the interactiveness of the whole thing. Social media is owned and generated by the public, both when it comes to content and form. This democratic structure means that social media is an arena for all corners of the public. But also that it is through the combined input and contribution from each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed. Even the smallest niche of people can become a group or community of its own through social media.

Finally, people are not static creatures and thus neither is public health sciences or social media. Both adapts to itself and surroundings. Changes in people’s behavior results in changes in public health. This means that continuously observation and interaction with the sources of research and among researchers is essential, if research is to take place. Social media can be a place to do this and to share the information. With the public, with counterparts or fellow researchers.


Public health is an interdisciplinary science. It draws upon research from fields as different as biostatistics, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, economics, medicine, pharmacology and several others disciplines. In addition, much research in public health happens in close collaboration with public health practitioners, and with the population as a whole.

Similarly, social media goes beyond disciplines, beyond communities, countries and sectors. The flexibility of the media means that it can be adjusted to the individuals preferences and needs and reach across disciplines in ways that traditional media can not. In addition, the more informal manner of the media makes it a good place to explore across sectors and disciplines. It gives an easy approach to other people’s main areas of work, of interests and their style. All things that are useful when you need to communicate with people outside your own field.

Public Health sciences’ interdisciplinary profile and the interaction with non-research oriented communities necessitates effective communication both from researcher to practitioner, researcher to researcher and the other way around. Social media provides this cross cutting communication platform.

Reliance on data

Public health research is a data-oriented discipline. Both qualitative and quantitative data frames most research in public health. Based on data, trends and patterns can be tested, theories can be discussed, data reviewed.

Social media is in its essence also all about data. Through interaction, communication and sharing of information it is one big collection of data. It is through the broadness and amount of data that trends and patterns are identified and information is spread. It can sometimes even go viral (a good old health related word) and information and data is spread.

The common central role of data in public health research and social media makes combining the two intuitively compatible. Data collection or spreading data/information through blogs, Twitter and Facebook are tools that public health researchers should explore. It might even end up in communication!

More similarities and arguments?

The above similarities may of course also apply to other research areas. After having been on social media for almost a year now these three just stood out to me. But I might have missed some, and perhaps I am elegantly overseeing reasons why social media and public health science are not so compatible. If that is so, I’d love to get you inputs on this! It could be helpful in an endeavor to get more researchers in public health sciences to regard social media as a natural and necessary tool for science communication.

Crowdsourcing examples of how social media can benefit downloads and citations of peer-reviewed articles

How do you persuade good old fashion researchers that social media has something to offer them too? You know, the kind who prefers having their papers published in the Lancet, British Medical Journal and Nature. The ones who like giving key-note speeches at prestigious conferences or at least an oral presentation of an abstract. And who frowns or looks completely lost when you suggest that the get a Twitter profile.

This is a challenge. But a blog post by Melissa Terras from the Department of Information Studies, University College London made me think, that using a medium these traditional oriented researchers respect, as a tool, could be a way forward. Melissa Terras’ blog post describes how starting to do small blog posts of the stories behind the research published in 26 published articles, and tweet them afterwards, increased the number of downloads of the articles substantially. In the blog posts she wrote about all the stuff that doesn’t make it into the published paper, but then of course linking and referring to the papers too and there by drawing attention to them.

It’s really interesting to read her story of how some blogging and tweeting made her articles much more downloaded than her colleagues (which said nothing of the quality of her colleagues work but more of their efforts to spread the word of their research). The blogging/tweeting strategy really seemed to work!

The reason why the experience of Melissa Terras could be a good case story to use in convincing other researchers that social media is not totally irrelevant is:

  1. It doesn’t criticise traditional research communication platforms such as peer-reviewed journals
  2. It shows that traditional media and social media can work together and benefit each other (by being a marketing place but also a place to say all things you couldn’t include in the published paper)
  3. It focuses on how you can spread your research to more people, which must be the aim of any scientist: to have others read, learn from and use your findings!
  4. It uses numbers and graphs – researchers like that!
  5. It uses comparisons and control groups (her colleagues and time)
  6. Its written by a researcher herself

A call for for more examples

One ‘downside’ to the case of Melissa Terras could be that her research field is electronic communication and digital humanities. One can almost assume that many of the people in her field are first-movers when it comes to using social media, and therefore blogging and tweeting is effective because her audience is there waiting at the other end of the line. It would be great to find more examples like the one of Melissa Terras, but from non-communication oriented research. Do you know of some? I would love to make a list which could be used in different academic fields to persuade colleagues that there is something in social media for them too. If nothing else its a way to boost the visibility of their published articles, but hopefully it could also help open their eyes to all the other upsides of social media in science communication.

Please do share your examples!

I’d just like to end off with Melissa Terras’ own conclusion, where she again speaks to the scientist using the scientists own language of: If (x) then (y + z = w) :

“So that would be my conclusion, really. If you want people to find and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline, and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to share. It’s pretty darn obvious, really:

If (social media interaction is often) then (Open access + social media = increased downloads).”

Inflation in teachings on social media in Danish Health care

Judging from the number of courses, guidelines etc. on the use of social media in health care, Denmark is now also becoming aware that there is something to it. The Danish Medical Association just published an advisory guide to their members on how to deal with social media, and “Dagens Medicin“, a Danish newspaper for health professionals, is offering a one-day course on social media in the health sector. An almost identical half-day course is offered by the Medicademy (an international educational program by The Danish Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry) which focuses on how the pharmaceutical industry can use social media in their communication. Both courses come at a quite heavy fee of 2700 DKK per person (475 USD).

A communication expert and case stories

The two courses are very similar in their structure and speakers – and price. Both courses have a broader social media expert as their first speaker. It is not a person from the health sector, but communication specialist Elisabeth Tissot Ludvig, who is director of a private communication and PR company specialising in Health Care Communication. Elisabeth Tissot is also an occasional blogger [in Danish] at The Danish Medical Bulletin, where she blogs about Danish medical doctors’ communication habits.

The two courses offer various speakers from the health sector who according to the programme will share experiences in using social media in relation to their profession. This includes a blogging doctor; a researcher in patient blogs; a nurse who have used social media in recruitment of personal; and a pharmaceutical company’s use of apps in communicating with patients. Through these examples it is the objective of both courses to spread knowledge of social media and its potential role in the Danish health care and pharmaceutical sector.

Focus on legal issues, not much about science communication

At both courses and in the folder from the Danish Medical Association, legal aspects of the use of social media play a mayor role. A lawyer will present legal restrictions in using social media in a health context. The guide from the Danish Medical Association is almost entirely focused on legal issues and advice on what not to do or avoid doing when online. The advice is sound enough, because of course there are issues to be aware of when communication, regardless of what media is used. I miss, however, some words on what social media could be useful for. Examples of benefits of being online as a medical doctor or other health care personnel. The folder seems to be mostly fear driven and not very balanced on potential advantages for doctors to go online.

Twitter, which I myself find to a kind of glue that connects the different kinds of social media and attach it to traditional media, is only briefly mentioned in the course offered by Dagens Medicin. Here Twitter will be presented by a popular comedian. Of course there can be an intention to add a more light and less formal speaker to the programme, but seen from my perspective it is a shame that a health related tweeter couldn’t be invited.

Another thing I miss in the programme is how social media can be used in research and in research communication. Research is an integrated part of the Danish health system and it would have been interesting to have added social media’s role in science communication to the programme. But perhaps that is an entire course in itself…

Regardless, the guide from the Danish Medical Association and the two courses, indicate that social media in relation to health care is an emerging issue also an Denmark. If not among the older generation then surely among the younger generation of doctors, nurses, researchers, public health specialist etc. who have grown up with social media as a natural part of their lives.

Two not so separate worlds: Peer-reviewed journals and social media

Social media and peer-reviewed journals. Some people would regard this as two separate worlds and perhaps they were once upon a time, but times change and more and more journals are embracing, exploring new uses and expanding their traditional journal universe with blogs, Twitter accounts etc.

An editorial retreat at The British Medical Journal focusing on social media shows that journals and social media are definitely not worlds apart. As I have been on a pre-Easter break I was unfortunately not able to follow the Twitter stream from the meeting, but in the spirit of social media a Storify (a collection of tweets #BMJseminar) from the meeting has been put together. It gives a small peak into the highlights of the meeting.

Blogging journals

I have previously blogged about the BMJ and PLoS blogs and recently the blog of the International Journal of Public Health. Lately, I have also been following Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet, on Twitter (@richardhorton1) where he actively tweets about the numerous meetings he attends. At times very entertain and very opinion born.

In addition, I just discovered The Lancet student blog, which aims to give medical students from around the world a place to talk about their experiences of medical school life, and  their thoughts on the top health issues of the day. The use of blogs, like they are used at BMJ and PloS, is however, as far as I can tell, nothing the Lancet has engaged in. I wonder why that is….

When humanities take a closer look at health and communication…

A ‘Humanities Perspective on Health’. I must admit that my prejudice about humanities flourished in my head when I last week decided to attend the ‘Institute day’ of the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication (MCC) at the Faculty of Humanities at University of Copenhagen. The headline for the event was “Humanities perspective on Health”.

My reason for bringing up the MCC institute day here on this blog is that a few of the presentations focused on the communication of health (see complete programme here – NB in Danish). Two presentations took their starting point in health as it is portrayed in television. Associate professor Christa Lykke Christensen took a closer look at health in Danish TV from the past to the present and Anne Jerslev, professor of Film- og Media Science, talked about “The biggest Loser”, a reality programme with obese people, as an example of a health related television programme from the US. Finally associate professor Tone Saugstad talked of didactics in health campaigns.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend all sessions, but from the ones I attended I put together this small Storify of my tweets (also in Danish). As far as I am aware, I was the only one tweeting at the event, so the tweets naturally only reflect my impressions. Would have been great if there had been others, but that was perhaps too much to expect at a department of media and communication.

Below are a few of my thoughts from the afternoon presentation.

The scientists new opponents: The Know-how experts

Crista Lykke Christensen illustrated in her presentation how television programmes in the 1970’s until the 00’s portrayed health as equal to the absence of disease. Most programmes used the format of documentary, reportage etc. looking at things like pollution and structural things in society that caused disease and illness. The responsible parties was to a large extend society, the industry etc. From the 00s and onwards the perspective changed. According to Christa Lykke, health as it is portrayed in Danish television today is no longer equal to the absence of disease, but is to a large extend now equal to the absence of obesity. The programmes use formats such as docu-soap, reality show etc. A consequence of this is, according to Christa Lykke, that in todays media coverage of heath, the true “health experts” have been replaced by “know-how experts” (coaches, diet experts, fitness instructors etc.) The ‘true experts’ have been pushed to the side.

Thinking it terms of public health science communication, I guess this means that the traditional health scientists are ‘up against’ a new league of people, not just the public or the politicians but also these new know-how experts. This fact is not revolutionary, but it just made me think about how science communication needs to find its strengths in comparison with the communication from know-how experts. Although Christa Lykke didn’t touch upon it in her presentation, it is obvious that know-how-health-experts are not just a TV phenomenon. Also online are there thousands of them. They have discovered the power of the blogs and social media – at least in comparison with Danish Public Health and Health scientists who almost shine by the absence. The know-how experts have made themselves available to the public and through online platforms they give on all sorts of health issues in a language their audience can understand. Perhaps scientists should let themselves inspire a little and dare to take a risk and communicate their research through other platforms that the peer-reviewed journal and conference presentations. Not by copying the know-how experts, but by finding their own format, suited for their research in the interactive platforms.

Communication people communicating through power point slides

I have never attended a meeting at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication (MCC) but I did (perhaps naively) expect that communication methods would be kind of cool and in sync with the newest developments. I was however to be disappointed – both when it came to presentation technic and the media covered in their presented research. Not once during the afternoon (at least in the part that I attended) was social media for example mentioned, even though this is a quite significant player on the health scene. Only a short mention of the fact that the programme “the biggest loser” also had an online world where viewers commented on the programme and shared their own obesity stories. The presentation on communication used in health campaigns by associate professor Tone Saugstad, was limited only to mass media, and when I asked her about the role of social media in national health campaigns she looked like one big question mark!

Also it was surprising how few photos, video etc. was on their presentations. Only at the end of the Anne Jerslevs “Biggest Loser” presentation did we get to see some photos from the show. No YouTube video clips, no sound clips, no illustrative examples from Christa Lykke, no examples of health campaigns – just ppt slides with bullet points. Quite surprising at a Department of Media, Cognition and Communication I must say!

All past, no future

Finally, I got the impression that the research presented was all very backwards looking. It was all about what had passed and no mention of what media coverage of health in the future could look like. Nor much opinion on whether the current coverage was good or bad or what consequences it has for public health (eg. does it influence the populations perception of what health is, how we utilise the health system, whether we eat differently etc). That it was all about the past and not so much the current consequences or of future communication was clearly illustrated when Christa Lykke replied that she had no comment on what she thought about the current coverage of health in TV, or any suggestions as to what the future would, could or should look like. She said that was not her role as a researcher. My thinking is that if researcher do not dare to, based on their knowledge and expertise, comment on the development, well then science is sure to lose the battle to the know-how experts….

Ryan Goslingfying biostatistics communication

Biostatistics is perhaps not the most approachable thing to people outside the biostatistics sphere, and as a discipline of Public Health Sciences it is sometimes frowned a little bit upon. Maybe because it is, even to many public health professionals, quite boring. It’s all about numbers, computer programmes, likelihoods, tests and probabilities and communicating it is difficult to do in a sexy or funny manner. Or is it…

A wonderful friend and fellow public-health’er who for better or worse have biostatistics as an integrated part of her work sent me this link to a Biostatistics Tumblerblog. She wrote:

“This is perhaps also a way of communicating public health sciences :)”

The website is the product of one PhD student’s free time and is meant purely as entertainment. It is hardly ‘Science Communication to the Public’, but perhaps one could argue that it is a way of communicating science to the insiders of biostatistics.

It uses the (unsexy) language of biostatistics and combines it with the (sexy) Ryan Gosling – thus it puts together two opposites. It is this combination that appeals to at least my friend and probably also to many of the other followers of the blog.

Go to the blog and check out this simple way of communicating biostatistics. Below a few appetizers picked out by a fan of the blog:

“Hey girl, since I met you I’ve violated my independence assumption”

Hey girl, before I meet you I wasn’t complete and sufficient”

Hey girl, if I was a non-adherent participant, would you still include me in your analytic sample?”

Hey girl, sometimes I feel like a nul-hypothesis. I will never be accepted”

If anybody knows of similar blogs, combining public health disciplines with short texts and photos do not hold back – share it!

Communicating the doubtfulness of Public Health Sciences

Asbestos causes lung cancer. Smoking is responsible to the majority of lung cancers. A specific genotype increases your risk of breast cancer, and measles is a virus that if not prevented can cause brain damage or in sever cases death.

All the above statements are scientifically supported facts, identified through public health research. Unfortunately, the world of Public Health Sciences is not all facts. Lots of possible connections, probably associations and complex causal structures determine our wellbeing, health and life span. Read any peer-reviewed health journal and many of the articles will have titles such as ‘indication of…’, ‘probable…’, ‘likely association…’ and the conclusions will be full of reservations and expression of the need for further research. In many ways it illustrates the premises of science: that answering one questions gives rise to a whole bunch of new ones.

The complexity and uncertainty in much health research is one of the reasons that headlines on news papers may change between “Chocolate can kill you”, “Or this is how chocolates saves your life”. In addition, public health is not ‘owned’ only by scientific researchers. Public health is exactly public health and the public may contribute to the picture with their own experiences, such as “Soya milk cured my child from chronic ear infections” or “My child became autistic shortly after it had its first measles immunization.” All of which may contribute to confusion on what is true and what is false.

Research studies are only very rarely 100% conclusive and it is therefore practically impossible for researchers to make clear-cut statements about health risks of various exposures. And this can be used to the advantage of industries or people for whom doubt is enough to sell a product or an idea. This is very well illustrated in this small video called “Doubt” made by The Climate Reality Project. The video shows how scientists inability to draw unambiguous conclusions can be turned to the advantage of for example tobacco companies and climate change sceptics. Add to that a lot of propaganda and the scientific community are up against a tremendous challenge, illustrated by this short quote from the film:

If doctors smoke – are the scientists wrong?

They [the tobacco companies] realised that the science doesn’t need to be disproven – it was enough to create doubt in the minds of the public to keep them from recognising the truth”.

The video, which takes the case of smoking as an example of how disagreement among scientists or their inability to make non-debatable conclusions (at least in the early stages of research), illustrates that public scepticism towards and doubt in what scientists argue has existed and flourished long before social media came into existence. In this case it is the damaging effects of smoking, but acid rain or nuclear risks are other examples.

Today, social media surely plays an important role in the scepticism towards eg. vaccines and climate change. And it enables it to spread quickly. What is the solution to that? That we close our eyes and say that social media is dangerous because it spreads non-scientific ideas? That seems a bit naive. Social media is unlikely to disappear, and so are all the blog posts, Twitter discussions and Facebook postings warning against measles vaccines etc. From my perspective the solution is for scientists, research institutions and others representing the scientific community ALSO to get out there, and make their view, knowledge and opinion head. Just like social media is a platform to quickly spread incorrect knowledge, it is equally good for spreading correct (in the eyes of science) knowledge and not let the allegations go unanswered. Of course social media would or could never stand alone, but it is an important communication channel not to overlook or rule out because of fear. If fear of misunderstandings of researchers blogging or tweeting or doubt in the credibility of social media rules the science community’s use of social media then the researchers are no better than the public who responds to doubt and fear…

The responsibility of public health people to communicate

Public Health is a broad field, and finding ones place in the palette of colours that public health consists of is tricky. I have been around many corners ranging from international health, health statistics and information systems to planning of care, health policy and governance. And lately public health communication. I don’t know if I have found my shelf, actually I kind of hope not, but I must say that the communication side of public health is crawling under my skin. Perhaps because it seems such a natural part of public health and in many ways a neglected part.

As I blogged about earlier this month, I have been reading “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin. It’s a book that takes you through a historical journey from the invention of vaccines to its successes, failures and not least the role communication played/plays in both. Ranging from the communication done by experts, the media to laypeople and celebrities. The book is well written and based on a great amount of research. I finished reading it yesterday and despite having enjoyed it a lot it also left me with a slightly discouraged feeling. It is a perfect example of how panic can grab a bunch of worried parents, about how ‘Mommy instinct’ becomes superior to scientific research and how the media at times can put aside rationale in order to follow the conflict, the emotional story and forget the premises of scientific research which makes giving absolute ‘yes or no’ answers extremely difficult. My discouragement was very much: Well what do we do about this, how can we take on mommy instincts and heart breaking stories and scientists who do not apply to scientific standards? Risk is difficult to communicate, communicating all the things we don’t know makes risk seem even more scary. So what do we communicate, how much do we communicate and in what way? And where does public health communication specifically fit into all of this?

I then realised that public health communication is perhaps exactly where some of the communication in the whole vaccine story went wrong. The media attention was taken over by people who took their starting point in individuals – in their own nine patients, their own child or grandchild or their own gut feeling. Even though organisations like the CDC, whose focus is population health, of course did and are doing their best to communicate the benefits of vaccines both to individuals and societies and draws attention to what the majority of the research findings is telling, I believe it is to some extend is still the failure of public health communication that may be to blame here. As I was taught from the very first day in my very first class in Public Health, Public health is exactly about the population perspective and we should be obliged to be much better at communicating this. Public health people should be the holders of that expertise – it is not the responsibility of the medical doctors or the statisticians or sociologists. We should be better at communicating risks and what they mean and be better at explaining what it is we don’t know. Most of public health research, whether it is done by numbers or by qualitative methods is about finding trends, causation in large groups etc that we can utilise to ensure or improve the wellbeing of the individual as well as the broader population. And we need to be better at communicating this. Not only to the public but also across scientific disciplines, across levels of society from decision makers to funders of health initiatives etc.

Taking my own public health training as my reference, I must admit, that I was not given much guidance on the communication side of public health. I was told that my expertise is that I have an insight into many disciplines and can bridge these disciplines, but how actually to carry out this bridging function I wasn’t given tools for. I hope I can be able to ‘catch up’ on this skill and that I can share my experiences with others. To a start I recommend people to read “The Panic Virus” and learn what the consequences can be if we don’t pay attention to the communication side of public health sciences.