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.



No simple recipe for translating science

The second module of the course in Public Health Science Communication focused on Translating Science to Traditional Media. On paper a nice and concrete topic – but both choosing literature for the syllabus and preparing for the class proved a little bit more challenging. Because what does ‘translating science’ mean? And is there a recipe for doing so?

The simple answer to the last question is: no. There is no formula to follow or an optimal way of doing it. It depends on the scientific topic, the scientist, the context, the targeted audience and the chosen media. This was one of the take home messages for the students. Not a very helpful message I fear. Hopefully, they did get something out of the module despite the lack of clear-cut facts and recipes. As a theoretical background, the students were presented with some perspectives on historical developments in the theories of public communication of science. The idea was to show the students how motivations behind communicating to the public had changed over time, and how the perception of the public influences how and why scientists communicate. For me personally, understanding developments in different approaches to translating science helps me think about how science can be translated today.

Framing

The power of ‘framing’ in translating science and reaching target groups was also talked about. The article by Myers, Nisbet et al A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change gave a nice public health context and demonstrated the power of health topics which is something all people can relate to. It was however just an appetizer for the extensive ‘framing’ approach.

We also had a nice discussion about whether and why scientists should communicate to the public. And what advantages the scientist may have for communicating (as the common perception is that scientists are bad communicators). The discussion was helped along by the article Of course scientists can communicate by Tim Radford. Again, there is no right or wrong answer for this, but the discussion gave a good feel for the challenges in translating science, but also some of the mechanisms that could help this communication along.

A lot of video clips, sounds clips and images were used to inspire and illustrate different ways of translating science:

Some more examples were shared by readers of this blog in the comments section. Thanks to all, and keep’m coming.

Some practical writing tips and tools

Although the course is not a practical communication or writing class I chose to spend some time on some basic communication tricks. Tricks that I was introduced to at the Danish School of Journalism and which I have found useful – especially for my written language. Many of the concrete writing tips can be found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (short online version is available and podcasts). Simple things like thinking about making your verbs active, choosing your verbs with care, walking up and down the ladder of abstraction, remembering the inverted news triangle, reading your text aloud while walking etc. It was all a bit rushed and a whole writing course would have been relevant – but unfortunately it could due to time restraints only be an appetizer.


Social media “likes” healthcare

The report is based on a survey of 1.060 American adults and 124 health care executives.

Social media “likes” healthcare. This is the title of a recently launched report from PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI). The subtitle; From marketing to social business, reveals that the report is focused on the role of social media in health care business. It does however have some interesting findings which are relevant also seen from a science communication perspective.

From PwC’s website the report including the statistical findings can be downloaded, so I won’t refer them here, but just highlight a points which could be useful in public health science communication.

 

The public does seek health information through social media

According to the report it is clear that social media is a tool for the public when they need health information. The figure below illustrates this.

Of course these findings applies to an American population with a very different health care system in comparison to the Danish health system. The information is however valuable because it confirms that health information seeking behavior includes social media. This is of interest to health care providers but also to researchers in health care, who have a unique chance to communicate their findings, reflections etc. to people who are actually searching for them. And why is that relevant? Well, to quote Don Sinko, chief integrity officer of Cleveland Clinic who in the report states:

“One of the greatest risks of social media is ignoring social media. It’s out there, and people are using it whether you like it or not.”

I would argue that this goes for public health science communication too. If the consumers doesn’t find your research while searching social media they will just find something else. Social media is out there and people are using it whether you like it or not.

Listen, Participate, Engage

Although the report focuses on how social media can be used in marketing and in social business strategies, HRI’s suggested social media participation model for businesses does hold some useful tips relevant also for science communication. The Listen, Participate, Engage strategy is illustrated below.

Looking at the strategy with science communication eyes this could be a good starting point for scientists who are newcomers to social media.

Listening is to start knowing. Looking into what other research organisations are communicating, what patient associations are focusing on, what colleagues already on social media are writing about can be a way to get a feel for the media and how it works. And it is pretty risk free – it is about listening and learning.

Second step is to participate. Start sending out tweets or post links to your own articles on Facebook. Retweet others links. There is no need to actively engage or go into discussions, but being active can give a feel of what happens when you communicate.

Third step is then to start engaging. From my experience it is not a process that is strictly divided into phases but something that slowly progresses. All of the sudden it makes sense to comment on a blog post, to ask a question on Twitter or respond to a statement on Facebook. It is also a process to find out what kind of social media that works best for the individual. Slowly moving from listening, to participating and then engaging makes it clear that the different platforms offers different functionalities and that which ones are most useful varies between scientific disciplines, organisations, countries etc.

All in all very simple steps and nothing fancy, but it doesn’t always have to be so complicated.

A health care business focus report

Again, the report from HRI is focused on health care business and not on health sciences. It would be interesting to do a similar or extended survey including questions on scientific health information and interviewing research institutions about their use of social media. I do believe however that some of the findings from the consumer survey in this report, which indicates that social media is playing an increasingly significant role in health care, also applies to health sciences and that public health researchers who are not already trying out the media should start to listen, participate and engage.


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.

Community-oriented

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.

Interdisciplinary

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.


The International Journal of Public Health blog

More and more public health related journals are expanding their online universes with blogs. Eg. BMJ and PLoS have blogs associated to their journals. Now one of the smaller journals of Public Health has also started a blog. The International Journal of Public Health’s blog is made as a joint venture with the Swiss School of Public Health +.

The blog aims to promote debate around current public health issues and articles published in IJPH and to bring together public health research and clinical practice. The idea behind it has been double:

  1. to provide a discussion platform for quick and direct exchange; and
  2. to put this discussion in an open space so that interested public health people from various fields can follow it and make contributions.

The blog seems to be populated with new posts quite regularly. Mostly the posts work as advertisement of newly published articles in International Journal of Public Health or events at the Swiss School of Public Health +. Almost all the posts end with a question, inviting the readers to comment, share ideas, thoughts and critic, such as:

“What do you think about this study? What could such results mean for Public Health policies?” or “We hope you find these articles useful! What other methodological articles would you like to see in IJPH?”

So far the comments section has not been used much. Whether this is due to lack of interest in commenting or inawareness of the blog is difficult to say as the blog is still quite new, and only was launched early in 2011.

Creating a open commenting culture is perhaps also just something that takes time…


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…