Ruling out Justin Bieber fever … and how we get feedback from the population

“… and how we get feedback from the population”. This sentence is the last remark in a short video on how Twitter might just change how we do Public Health. I love the sentence. It refers to how Twitter is a new tool in Public Health research, but also a tool for us to get feedback on our research from the population. It strikes upon one of the key values of social media in public health – its ability to interact with the population whose health and well-being is what we are working to ensure.

In 1 minute and 40 seconds, Computer Science Professor Michael J. Paul and Doctoral Candidate Mark Dredz, both at Johns Hopkins University, gives an appetizer to how we can use public health information hidden in tweets to improve the health of our population. The secret is, as it is in most public health research, not to look at one patient, one doctor, one sick story or one single Tweet, but to look at thousands or in this case even billions. This video show how two billion Tweets can unlock insights to our public health.

By analyzing two billion Tweets for relevance to health information and then comparing the results to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Michael J. Paul and Mark Dredz demonstrate how Twitter can accurately track the spread of influenza, the peak of allergies and predict how diseases spread and change over time.

This really could change the way we do public health in this country – and how we get feedback from the population.”

Michael J. Paul, Professor, Johns Hopkins University

The secret is to turn tweets into data. That requires however a computer which  have been taught that ‘Justin Bieber fever’ is (so far) not a public health problem. Luckily they solved that problem:

The analysis by Michael J. Paul and Mark Dredz can be read in a traditional scientific article format here.


European Public Health Association and the missing communication category

Yesterday, I got an email congratulating me, that I am now a member of EUPHA – The European Public Health Association. With a public health background this is naturally an association I feel it only right that I be a member of and I assumed that I would be able to find myself as a natural member fitting right in. So, I rushed to my profile page (as the email encouraged me to) and completed my profile data. My feeling of identification with EUPHA was however challenged from the very first moment.

The profile page is pretty straight forward – name, address, nationality etc. That is easy and as soon as the letters were typed in, I could easily identify with the person on the page. But when I came to ticking off the boxes under “EUPHA sections“, “Field of expertise” and “Topic areas” it was almost impossible to find myself. No where was there referral to anything that has to do with public health communication! I must admit I was really very surprised about this. Under Sections the closest thing to fit me was the “Public Health Practice and Policy-section”. Under Field of expertise there was again no communication related option (see below), so in order just to tick something, I saw “health information” as the best option although this could also refer to be health data (which I luckily also have some expertise in): And finally, under Topic Areas there was neither any reference made to communication, unless you could assess it to fall within “Health Promotion” or “Health Behaviour”.

All in all, I must admit that didn’t really feel represented in EUPHA categories. And I can’t help wonder why communication is not a least a topic area for EUPHA. Is public health communication not a priority? Is it just something that is assumed to fall as a sub-component of other public health topics and expertise? Or is this not something a public health person need worry about because we’ll have the communication staff to take care of about this?

On the EUPHA website, communication is not entirely missing. Thus, the association refers to EACH The European Association for Communication in Healthcare – which is an interdisciplinary non-profit organisation which brings together researchers and trainers in the field of communication in healthcare.

I am however still disappointed in the severely misrepresentation of communication in EUPHA. Public Health is about the health of the public and communicating health messages, research findings etc. to the appropriate people (whether they be the public, policy makers, other researchers etc.) is in essence the back bone of successful public health research and maintaining a healthy population. It should in my opinion at least qualify for a Topic Area in EUPHA’s profile page options.


Lots of Twitter communication about science communication

Before the year of 2011 came to an end, I did a few posts about science communication and the challenge of communicating science communication. This was inspired by various talks I had had with friends, colleagues and the planning of a masters course in Public Health Science Communication.

And as one of the first things in 2012, the #hcsmanz weekly Twitter discussion group on Health Care and Social Media in Australia and New Zealand decided to base their first chat of the year on some of my reflections. Unfortunately, I was on a plane when the discussion took place, so I couldn’t participate myself. But luckily transcripts are made of these discussions and thus also for this one!

Since I couldn’t join the discussion, I thought I’d share some highlights from it here. First of all, it was great to experience that something I put out there in cyber space triggered others to start discussing. And people whom I would have been unlikely to discuss this with otherwise. It is a great example of how sharing thoughts and views in the process can be beneficial to the bigger project/research study!

The #hcsmanz discussion was structured around five elements, which I in my blog post had highlighted as important to communicate in a course on science communication. They were converted into the four questions/statements below:

  1. Communication should be considered as an integrated element in the research process.
  2. Communication can be beneficial to the research process.
  3. Who should researchers be communicating with and what channels can utilised?
  4. What is the secret sauce of communication that generates feedback/reaction?

These four questions (refered to as T1, T2, T3, T4 in the chat) generated a lot of interesting tweeting, not just from people in Aus/NZ but also participants from Canada and the Netherlands. Some of the interesting things that were brought forward I’ll try to summarize below supported by 23 tweets (out of hundreds) – I should probably also have used the cool tool Storify for this, but that will be next time 🙂

  • Communication is an integrated part of research, but requires that researchers are trained and the necessary support is available – both to give guidance but also to support the prioritization of spending time and effort in communication activities.

  • Communication also of non-news material is important.

  • Social media provides new opportunities for science communication, but is not yet well-regarded and knowledge is still limited among many researchers.

  • Science communication is beneficial to the research process – if you communicate with the right ones and in the appropriate way depending on who they are. The importance of making feedback easy and quick is not to be underestimated.

  • One thing is to communicate and the best ways to do that, but to communicate so that you engage your audience is an additional challenge. A keyword is to provide efficient feedback opportunities for the reader and the researcher. Social media such as Twitter and blogs provides forums for this (but does not solve the engagement challenge all together).

I could have highlighted lots of other tweets, and would as said have loved to participate in this, I hope however to join next time and continue to share thoughts and reflections with the rest of you. And big thanks to Kishan Kariippanon (@yhpo) for taking up this topic!


Comics for public health science communication?

Could Public Health research findings, public health messages or social aspects of health care be communicated through comics? Would it only be relevant if you want to target children?

If you lived, in Japan you would be very likely to answer no to that question. Manga, a Japanese form of comic, is an integrated part of the Japanese population’s every day life. In any convenience store, news papers will be side by side of Mangas and they are not ‘just’ comics. There is actually a Manga newspaper (direct link to Manga No Shimbun) and manga is used for many educational purposes too.

That not only Japan makes use of comics to communicate professional issues, including medicine came to my attention yesterday, when I on Twitter came across an upcoming conference on Comics and Medicine in Toronto in July 2012.

This interdisplicinary conference on Comics and Medicine is the third of its kind and aims to explore the intersection of sequential visual arts and medicine. The upcoming conference will look at perspectives which are often under-represented in graphic narratives, such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking. They are currently accepting proposals for scholarly papers and discussions: Comics & Medicine Call for Papers.

Very often science communication is considered as something that takes place only in peer-reviewed journals, international conferences and internal seminars, but the example of Comics and Medicine just illustrates the range of channels and formats for science communication is diverse! This I find exiting!

Al though I do not myself have experience with comics for science communication, I feel like highlighting a Japanese Manga that I myself have become quite hooked on. Oishinbo is a Japanese manga about Japanese food, traditions on how to prepare it, the philosophy behind it etc. It is extremely educational, interesting and fun. Have you got just the slightest interest in the Japanese cuisine, I can only recommend that you dig into the universe of Oishinbo!


Sharing a small Twitter moment

A login on Twitter is one of my morning routines – you never know if a tweet may influence the agenda of your day and today I thought I’d share a small Twitter moment with you. This morning I came across a tweet that triggered my Health Information System past and former WHO/Health Metrics Network employer status. The tweet was the below:

In his tweet, Matthew Greenall, an advisor on AIDS & sexual health programmes in low-income countries, links to an article published in the Rwanda paper The New Times. The article, authored by Dr Agnes Binagwaho, Rwandan Minister of Health directs a well argued critic against the up-to-dateness of WHO country specific health data.

Finding the article very interesting I emailed it to a group of former WHO/HMN colleagues (none of them are on Twitter so I couldn’t tweet it to them). In sending it, I did not really reflect on the possibility that those of my colleagues still within WHO could do anything about it. I just felt like sharing it with them. One of my former colleagues, who is actually involved in health statistics from WHO, read it and responded back quickly thanking me for pointing it out, and said that she had forwarded it up the system to the people who actually are responsible for the World Health statistics and Global Health Observatory. She hoped that a dialogue could be started. I assume she primarily refered to a dialogue with Rwanda, but most definitely also a dialogue within WHO on the measures the organisation has to make sure their data evidence is up to date (which seems to be complicated by WHO itself).

I hope, however, that the dialogue could also be on WHO communication strategies and presence on social media, for example to role of Twitter in communicating and keeping up to date on current trends and affairs – not just through one official WHO account, but  also through personal or much more issue specific WHO areas.

The article by the Rwandan Minister of Health was published in what I assume to be a rather low-impact media channel (how many of you knew of Rwandan The New Times?). All though the story could be picked up by other media and passed on, I am not sure how quickly the story would reach WHO. Of course the WHO country office in Rwanda could pick up on the article and pass it on, but I would be surprised if they have not already been contacted by the Rwandan Minister of Health in relation to the outdated WHO data. It seems however in this particular case that the story travelled the fastest through Twitter, and through Twitter came to the knowledge of the right people and not just WHO communication officers (I wonder if it did?).

Although I find the critic of WHO’s data interesting it is not so much the specific story that interests me. Whether or not this particular critic will result in changes, dialogue or changed communication priorities, it was for me once again an interesting and educational Twitter experience. It was great to see how something I picked up on Twitter was passed on and landed in hands of the people who needs to know the content of the article. There really is something to that Twitter invention….


Social media – a tool to strengthen health systems and research collaboration in developing countries?

Having worked with public health issues in developing countries and even specifically with health systems, I just had to share this article, which I came across yesterday.

Use Social Media to Strengthen Health Systems by Alexander E. T. Finlayson, Katherine E.M. Hudson and Faisal R. Ali draws attention to the huge potential for researchers in developing countries to communicate and cooperate through social media.

Building research capacity in developing countries has been and still is a challenge and perhaps something that has been neglected. According to the authors strengthening research capacity is however increasingly becoming an aim in itself in efforts to improve health systems in developing countries. And one way to do that could be to take advantage of the possibilities in social media. In Nature Alexander E. T. Finlayson and his colleagues have recently for example argued for the use of Twitter to enhance collaboration between researchers in developing countries.

In general the authors draw attention to the mobile-phone revolution, which has taken place in developing countries, and literally bypassed fixed-line telephone and internet connections. Taking off from this revolution provides an opportunity to think creatively in terms of establishing collaboration not only between researchers but also in providing public health services to the people.

As is pointed out both in the article and in some of the comments on the article, social media will not be a magic fix and there are lots of challenges to take into account, but its potential in contributing to improving health systems as well as other public health issues in developing countries should not be disregarded.

Encouraging you to read the full article, here are however a few passages from the article, I find interesting

On the mobile revolution:

“With more than five billion subscriptions, mobile phones are now indispensable across the world. Mobile technology promises to transform global healthcare, especially in remote areas, by enabling direct interaction with patients, helping remote training of healthcare workers, and supporting the education of scientists.”

“… just as many African countries have bypassed fixed telephone lines to embrace mobile-phone networks, so healthcare systems can skip having paper records.It is highly likely that scientists in countries with limited resources will follow this pattern, perhaps bypassing traditional, and at times ineffective, research methodologies for more progressive approaches — including the use of social media — to addressing local priorities for biomedical research.”

On crowdsourcing:

“Unnecessary duplication of research is widespread in Western science, and competition for funds and publications risks breeding a culture of secrecy between scientists eager to protect their ideas. This is potentially problematic. But in developing countries, where resources are scarcer and research results are more critical to saving human lives, there should be even greater demand for a streamlined model of scientific cooperation.”

On the use of Twitter:

“… by leveraging the global nature of media such as Twitter, with a large audience and well-defined interest groups, individual scientists could find local collaborators working on similar problems with greater experience in specific areas of their work. By eliminating reams of redundancy from the scientific process, scientists in developing countries may be able to conduct research that is faster, better targeted to real problems, and has less duplication. And in the end, they could disseminate their results more efficiently.”


Disseminate, inform, share, ask, discuss, communicate research

What is it we do when we blog about research or make use other kinds of social web media in communicating research? Do we disseminate information? Are we sharing information? Are we expressing viewpoints? Do we ask questions and enter into dialogue? Are we discussing? Are we communicating?

Yesterday, as reading a project description for a research study from Aarhus University on the use of Web 2.0 in disseminating research to other researchers, partners and the public I came to think of the above. To me it is obvious that using social media to tell the world about our work is a form of communication. Given, communication covers several sub elements. For communication to take place someone (the blogger) have to ‘send out a message’ or disseminate information (a through a blog post). Questions can be raised to the reader and through the comments function the reader has the possibility to react and comment. Communication between sender and reader is a possibility. Links may be made to other sources which is also a kind of communication with other senders of information. It is all sort of built into each other, and talking about one without the other can in some cases be difficult.

What struck me in the before mentioned project description was that a clear distinction is made between disseminating research and communicating research (translated from Danish):

The project aims to investigate the dissemination potential in new forms of research dissemination tools made ​​possible by new digital media. Focus of the project is the use of digital media for research dissemination and communication between scientists themselves, from researchers to partners in firms and institutions and the public. The goal is to connect research dissemination to communication, exchange and cooperation. The key is to create visibility for research through using new digital media.

I am puzzled a little by the project description. The project aims to investigate the dissemination potential in new digital media, but I assume what they are interested in is the communication potential. After all this is the advantage new digital media has over traditional platforms for research communication such as journals and reports. Maybe I am obsessing over words here but it just seems like a funny choice of words.

Speaking to one of the lead researchers behind the study I asked if this distinction was intentional and if so how each concept should be understood. He explained that dissemination was regarded as one-way communication, where the researcher passes on his knowledge, views, findings but without entering into dialogue with the receiver. Communication on the other hand is characterised by a dialogue, communication (or the possibility of it) between the sender and the receiver. Web 2.0 provides an excellent frame for turning dissemination through the web into something more than just dissemination.

Dissemination of research is of course nothing new. It has happened for as long as science has (and longer). Scientific journals, lecturers, reports, interviews in news papers and magazines, websites, databases etc. are ways to disseminate research. The new digital media such as podcasts, blogs, etc. are in relation to this just additional platforms for telling the world about you research. What is unique about web 2.0 and the social media is that it is actually able to provide a base for communicating, equal to the communication that can happen at research seminar, at debates or in discussion groups. They are in their core social.

What I do find interesting about the project from Aarhus University is the last part about connecting dissemination to communication, exchange and cooperation. Researchers may not all be brilliant at it, but most of them are aware (and interested in) that it is necessary to disseminate their findings and to that end social media is just another platform. What many of them perhaps know less about and may need training and sensibilitation to is how to communicate, exchange and cooperate with other than their usual suspects. Changing perspective a little and learning how communication is  linked to disseminating, but that the communcation aspect may  influence how and what to disseminate.

So far very few Danish researchers uses blogs, Twitter, Google+ etc. for disseminating or communicating their research. And within health the practice is almost non-existent (with a few exceptions). So there is definitely a lot to do in making Danish public health researchers familiar with the web as a platform not just for disseminating but also for communicating!