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.


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).


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…