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

Social media presents several advantages to public health science communication. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are also challenges to the media. Below I have listed some of them. As with the advantages, I am sure there are many more challenges than those below, so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

Values, opinions, feelings and politics

As with many other social sciences, research in public health exists and operates in a political context where values, opinions, and ethical considerations play a big role. In addition, health is not only owned by doctors and researchers, but is a topic and condition that is relevant to all human beings, which means that almost everyone have an opinion or personal feelings entangled into it. Health is a mayor topic in politics, economics, human development etc. The multiple number of stakeholders challenges communication of public health sciences. Few people would be outraged by a scientific debate among mathematicians, but in public health the story is another. New research projects or findings can quickly turn into debates influenced by other stakeholders in health and by non-scientific arguments. Open platforms like social media used to present and discuss public health sciences may open up for such debates with potential inputs all segments of the population. Such debates can be time-consuming, problematic both politically and scientifically and in the end not benefit neither the scientific process or the researcher.

Fear of drowning and loosing time

“I don’t have time to be on Twitter.”, “I’m already behind in reading reports and journals”. These are some of the worries many researchers and public health specialists raise when they are confronted with using social media in their academic practice. And although their fear of time consumption and information overload may be exaggerated, it is true, that especially in the beginning it does require time to get acquainted with social media for scientific purposes and to build up an online network. Since social media does provide new information, it will often be an additional information source, which requires time. Proper introduction in how to use social media for research purposes could overcome this however. And in the end I would argue that it can actually save time (and money). For example time and money saved on following a conference through Twitter rather than physically being present at the conference. In addition, social media can actually be a way to filter all the available material through its search functions and by following people who are interested in the same area as one self.

Lack of control with the media

Many research institutions have social media policies setting out rules for what kind of media can be used and for what purposes. Some of them are pretty strict and leaves it to the communication departments to be in control of what goes out on social media. Due to the openness and interactive characteristic of the media it does of course open up for risks such as scooping of research findings, false accusations and irrelevant or perhaps harmful communication. Avoiding these situation depends to a large extend on the users responsible behavior when communicating through social media and proper guidance on how to use it.


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.


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….


Students minding the science gap in public health

I have previously written about the use of blogs by students and researchers at schools of public health (I called them Schools of Public Health 2.0). One example was School of Public Health at the University of British Colombia.

This week, I came across another school of Public Health Sciences that is actively using blogging in communicating with the world, and in giving students communication skills.

For ten weeks between January and April 2012, ten Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan (UM), have taken on a blogging challenge. On the website Mind the Science Gap they are posting weekly articles about various public health related news, research studies etc. The aim is for the students to learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate. The objective of this whole blogging exercise is an ambitious one:

“to help ensure that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best communicators around when it comes to translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on.”

As part of the initiative, readers of the blog have been encouraged to write comments, both on the content and the form. So-called mentors from all backgrounds have signed up to comment on a weekly basis (you can still sign up here). With the comments the aim is for the students to improve their communication skills though the ten weeks.

I have read a few of the blog post and also commented and my impression is so far very good. Both because the blog posts are interesting and well written, but also reading the many comments to each of the blogs is great. There are good tips from experienced science bloggers that others than the ten students can learn from. And then I do in general appreciate the ambitious tone of the blog initiative: ensuring that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best at translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on. Imagine if they are succesful in this. Not only will that be an advantage for the work places that will later on recruit these ten students, it could potentially put pressure on other schools of public health to make sure that their students are even better – and are they succesful in that imagine all the benefit that could be achieved to public health! Okay, maybe this is a little naive – but one can always hope…

A blogging school

In addition to Mind the Science Gap, the MU School of Public Health also has a student blog where students blog about life as students of Public Health, and a long list of blogs from several SPH faculty, alums, and student groups. For example: Rackham Graduate School blogs, run by two Ph.D. students, a Risk Science Center blog, a Public Health Library blog, a UM SPH Epidemiology Student Organization blog, the blog 2020 Science about emerging science and technology and many more (see the complete list here).


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.


Viral public health science communication

My new bedtime reading is made of dramatic stuff. It is about children with dangerously high fevers, about parents fearing for the life of their offspring, and about healthy maids milking cows. It is about the enthusiastic joy of getting closer to immortality and the birth of fears so great that people turn their backs on what their parents just a decade earlier glorified to the skies. It’s about vaccines and infectious diseases!

At Science Online 2012, I was so fortunate to win a copy of “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin, and with a long stopover in Chicago on my way back to Copenhagen this was a perfect way to pass time and close Scio12 with a well written story about the role of public health science communication! I have not yet finished the book, but will most likely return with a separate blog post on it when I’m done. There is lots of interesting stuff in that book.

I will however just share a poster or infographic that I came across the other day. Actually, it kind of summarizes a big part of “The Panic Virus” or is at least a response to the panic which, among other things, a false report of a link between vaccines and autism created among parents. A panic that still has a strong take on many people today. The poster is created by Medicalcodingcareerguide.com and uses data on vaccine and disease by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

I like the poster for several reasons. Firstly, I find the layout very appealing. There is something very retro about it. The yellow colour, the choice of font and the style of the images. Secondly, I like that it plays with the format of a poster. It doesn’t use a conventional format, but plays with the proportion. Thus, it is long and thin (a little bit like a syringe) and it tells a continues story. You can jump in anywhere, but you can also let the poster tell you a story from beginning to end. Thirdly, the numbers are to the point. No excess information or complicated graphs. It gets the message across without being overly complicated, but not naively simple either. That goes for the text too. There isn’t a fear of using latin words, but it is still informative. And then again, it is just a poster/infographic so it can’t contain all the complexity. I still like it however.

One element of critic could be that the two crossing syringes in the title could be interpreted as a crossing out of the word vaccination – which is definitely not the intention by the designers I assume.

Voila the poster, an example of public health science communication:

Medical Coding Career Guide
Created by: Medical Coding Career Guide


The risky business of communicating science

Science Online 2012 is over, and I must admit that I’m still full of all the inputs, impressions and ideas that almost overloaded my head during those three days in North Carolina. Knowing were to start and were to end when giving highlights of the (un)conference is difficult. A blog post on my general reflections of the conference is coming up, but first I thought I’d just touch upon one of the themes I encountered at #scio12.

Risk. How do we communicate it? What is it really? What happens when a calculated, objective risk on paper is processed by a human mind? This is big challenge when communicating science – and perhaps especially in communication health research. Two of the sessions I attended at Science Online focused on risk. The first one, “Science Communication, Risk Communication and the role of social networks”, moderated by David Ropeik was a great session. David Ropeik pointed out that risk may very well be something that can be calculated to a percentage but to people it is a feeling. And feelings operate differently – and are not rational. I myself experienced that today. Being nearsighted I had a preexamination today for later lasic surgery. I had in advanced received a small folder explaining the procedure and of course – the risks. Even though the risks are relatively small, and despite the fact that I know several people who have had it done and are very happy with the result, when I read the small information brochure, I did all of a sudden have a feeling of “yikes – is this risk too big?” “How much is 1% really?” “If there were a hundred of me out there would one have worse eyesight after the procedure? Or would it look different if it was a hundred different people and not a hundred me? It is true, risk is a feeling. I felt like asking the doctor if he would do it if it was him. I wanted his feeling on this too.

Risk really is a challenge to communicate. And perhaps particularly in health, because disease and sickness is something that is very real to us and easy to imagine. In this regard, social media can be a challenge. Things have the potential to spread like viruses when they go online. Rumours of risk a radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant made friends and family in Denmark fear for my wellbeing when I was in Kobe, Japan although I was more than 600 km away from the Fukushima plant. People in Denmark even feared that with wind coming in over Denmark from Japan they would too be at risk, if the situation got worse. And fears like that may be reinforced with unimaginable speed once they go viral.

So how do you balance communicating the facts when you at the same time risk steering fear? Are there ethical obligations to communicate all available research or the  opposite – should researchers be obligated to hold back certain kinds of information in the interest of public health, and the interest of the individual? Communication in public health is central, and reflecting on how to deal with risks should be a requirement for any public health researcher or professional (and for journalists too!). The web’s role in this is tricky. It is important to get the facts out there – and try to illustrate the proportion of risk, but the web also provides a fora where you can find confirmation of the risk of almost anything you like.

The discussions at Science Online didn’t give answers to how with deal with risk, and there most certainly is no magical solution. But the discussion triggered reflection, which should be required by all public health professionals when they communicate, whether to the public, to a journalist, at decision maker etc.

And as an end note: I did decide to go ahead with the lasic surgery – after carefully evaluating the risks and interpreting the doctors attitude and behavior. So in April, when I am without glasses, I will hopefully be able to say that it was worth the risk 🙂