Technical report: Social Media & Public Health Research

This blog was set up as part of a research project conducted at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Public Health.

The research project was focused on the use of social media in the communication of research in public health sciences. The technical report, completed by myself and Professor Thomas Söderqvist, is now ready, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you all here on this blog.

Technical Report: Social Media and Public Health Research (find abstract below)

The report is a working report and the basis for more research. We therefore look forward to critical comments, debate and suggestions for future work.

Abstract

Ten years after its introduction, web and mobile based social media have become an integral part of modern society. The point of departure for this report is that social media will also play an increasingly important role for public health researchers.

One obvious use of social media is for communication between scientists and the public. In contrast to traditional one-way dissemination, social media can foster a more intense, engaging and democratic discussion about public health problems between researchers, public health officers, general practitioners, and the general public.

By providing platforms for knowledge sharing and scientific discussions, social media also offers great opportunities for public health science networking. The cross-disciplinary and community-oriented features of social media make it ideally suited for informal and rapid communication among public health researchers globally. In addition, social media can also be utilised for data collection and data sharing and as a tool in public health teaching programmes.

Like all other modes of communication, social media has its advantages and problems. Its major strength – the rapid, informal and open structure of communication – also opens up for potential misuse and lack of quality control. Another perceived problem is that social media allegedly takes time away from research; however, as this report points out, social media, when properly used, can be yet another support tool for research.

The report ends with an overview of research topics that can help foster a deeper understanding of how social media can facilitate public health research and public communication.

The thrust of this report is that public health research communication goes beyond the mission and capacity of university communication departments; that science communication is a continuous component of the entire research process; and that public science communication is a task for individual researchers as well.


Why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

The course Public Health Science Communication went live Wednesday last week! And based on the first experiences it survived the encounter with the students, is still in good shape and looking forward to moving on to module two this coming Wednesday.

Since the concept “public health science communication” is still not a household concept and does to my knowledge not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry or a crystal clear definition, I found it useful during the first lesson to ask the students what they, in one sentence, considered public health science communication to be. It gave some interesting responses, of which I here share a few:

In one sentences: What is public health science communication?

  • Simplifying public health science so that it is easier to understand for the public
  • Public health science communication is the science of communication of scientific research to the public
  • Communicating the essence of public health research to the public
  • It’s an interaction among public health workers, public and policy makers to improve health of general public
  • Ways to create greater understanding amongst public, governments and general public about advances in science in particular and relevant formats
  • Communication of scientific health information translated into understandable messages to the public
  • That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

Most of the responses are not surprising, and combining them gets us around several aspects of the concept. I do however still find it a little surprising that focus is so heavily on communicating to the public. Where is communication with researchers? Only a few mention e.g. policymakers and public health practitioners. Of course the word public could be understood in its broadest sense – but my feeling is that many are thinking about Mr and Mrs Smith/Jensen/Sanchez when they say “the public”. Some also understood public health science communication to be communicating for behavioral change, which would probably fall more under health communication. Secondly, it seems that science communication is regarded as being about communicating to the public and not with the public. I look forward to expanding the students’ perception of this in the coming weeks.

All the responses are interesting, but my favorite response is this one: “That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?” In my head it nails it completely.

I also asked the student what they expected to learn. Below some of their responses:

What do you expect to learn?

  • How to be a better communicator of science
  • I expect to learn something about how to communicate public health science to the public, what information is interesting for ”the public” and which strategies are useful in communicating and how I do it
  • Something about the relation between the scientific world and the public – the role of science communication
  • How to better communicate health related information to individuals  (with diverse backgrounds) + communities in an effective and respectful manner
  • A broader way of thinking/analysing/communicate science so it is easier to implement them locally/nationally/internationally
  • How to make research tangible for people outside the field. How to sell the message
  • How to communicate to the public 1) what is public health science, 2) communicate results of public health sciences
  • Challenges of communication with policy makers from public health workers point of view
  • Theories and practical stuff about communication

I’m exited about what the responses. Hopefully, the students will feel that they have been given a few tools, and a better understanding of the role of science communication in public health when the course is over. I also hope that they will have seen that public health science communication includes more than reaching the public and ‘selling messages’, but is just as much about engaging and interacting with the public (understood in its broadest sense) and that communication is not only in aimed at educating the public but may also serve a purpose for their research and for themselves as researchers.

Although the students’ expectations and the objective of the course weren’t all that different I still clarified what the course was not – and what it was intending to be. Perhaps this may be useful to readers on this blog as well.