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.


Seminar: Medicine 2.0: Social media in medical research and practice

Today, on Monday 29 October 2012, Medical Museion and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at University of Copenhagen is hosting a meeting on social media in medical research and practice.

Social media have conquered society. They are now also making their way into medical research and practice. What can doctors and researchers gain from using social media? How will these media change medical science and practice?

The meeting will kick off with 30-minute presentations by international experts in medical science communication and also active social media users:

  • Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), advocate for ”open access publishing” and very active on social media
  • Dr. Bertalan Meskó, founder of www.webicina.com and one of the world’s leading experts in the field of medicine and social media

Following the talks, the audience will be invited to discuss with a panel, which also includes MD PhD journalist Charlotte Strøm and me who has had the honor of being refered to as a Danish specialist in medical communication Nina Bjerglund Andersen.

The event is open to everyone and will be in English. No sign-up required.

Event details:

Date: 29 October 2012, 14:00 – 16:00
Location: Haderup-auditoriet, bygning 20, Panum, Nørre Allé 20, Copenhagen
Organiser: Faculty of Health Sciences and Section for Science Communication, NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research in collaboration with the Copenhagen Graduate School of Health and Medical Sciences.
Contact: Research assistant Lasse Frank, lasse.frank@sund.ku.dk or professor Thomas Söderqvist, thss@sund.ku.dk, tel. 2875 3801


Does the technical staff at the World Health Organization (WHO) tweet?

At least on paper the World Health Organization (WHO) constitutes the foremost authority when it comes to public health. According its own website the organisation is “responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.” (quote from WHO.int/about)

Having worked for the organisation on several occasions, WHO is in my opinion not always living up to their foremost authority status. And when it comes to exploring the use of social media in public health they have definitely not been front-runners but rather seriously been lacking behind.

All though WHO has applauded their own use of social media (eg. in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization), I believe that they until recently have taken their mouth a little full when doing so. As I mentioned in my blog post A very non-social media article about the World Health Organization, public health and social mediasocial media was definitely not a part of my world as a WHO professional staff member. It was never encouraged used or explored. And even though the organisation is now a frequent tweeter on @WHO and have profiles on both Facebook and YouTube, I still miss more integration of social media in WHO’s work and traditional communication channels like Bulletin of the World Health Organization. But most importantly I miss seeing them integrate social media into their technical work, research and research communication.

Changes happening?

But changes might be happening, and even slow starters can get going. I was therefore happy to read the blog post WHO Finds Social Media Indispensable in Managing Global Health Crises by David J Olsen. David Olsen have visited WHO’s Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC) and talked to Christine Feig, WHO’s head of communications and Sari Setiogi, a WHO social media officer, about the organisation’s use of social media. Christine Feig describes how social media has fundamentally changed WHO health surveillance and gives examples from the response to the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima radiation crisis of 2011. Social media officer Sari Setiogi (on of two social media officers in the entire organisation) even acknowledges that WHO have perhaps not been among the fastest to adopt social media, but that they during the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 “learned their lesson the hard way” by totally ignoring social media. And according to Sai Setiogi, social media is likely to become a bigger and bigger component in WHO’s work.

Where is the technical staff?

So WHO has taken on social media. They (or at least their communication department) are actively communicating to and with the public and they are analyzing and identifying trends on Twitter and Facebook with relevance for public health (eg. the fast spreading misconceptions of intake of iodine during the Fukushima radiation crisis).

Using social media not just for mass communication but also for research is refreshing to see. What I miss from David Olsen’s post is however the voice of the WHO technical staff. It is natural to approach the communication department when wanting to learn more about an organisation’s use of social media, and if anyone in the organisation should using social media it is the communication people, right? But what about other staff members? What about the technical staff? And how about the managerial level? Are they blogging, tweeting, members of LinkedIn groups etc.? Giving the voice only to the communication department makes me wonder:

  • Is the use of social media in WHO something confined to the communication department?
  • Is it only used for the management of global health crises, or does it go beyond catastrophes?
  • Is social media a tool used by for example the department of Non-communicable diseases when doing research or providing technical guidance and support?
  • Does the professional staff of Roll Back Malaria (WHO’s malaria programme) blog about their work?
  • Is the director of Health System Financing on Twitter?
  • Does the mental health department staff participate in Twitter discussions?

WHO’s technical staff might very well be using social media (even though it isn’t mentioned, doesn’t mean that it is not happening). Perhaps they are encouraged to do so, perhaps they are doing it on their own initiative. Perhaps there are regional differences (which is the case for many issues in WHO) and even differences from country office to country office in the use of social media for science communication. In any case, I really would encourage WHO to open its eyes to social media as a tool not just for communicating health messages and analysing influenza trends and misconceptions of iodine intake, but also as a means of science communication. As several examples on this blog shows there are lots of opportunities worth exploring. By taking on the challenge WHO could potentially also in the area of social media and public health science communication become an organisation “providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.”



Cultivating followers on social media when you want to communicate science

How do you explain why social media can be a good thing for researchers to look into? What advantages and what challenges are important to highlight? Next week, I’ll be introducing social media for science communication to the Danish Public Health Sciences Alumni (in Danish). It always helps being quite convinced yourself of what you are talking about, but reading other people’s arguments can also help. Especially, if they are in line with your own experiences.

I was therefore delighted to read a blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience, by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University. He writes about using social media (like Twitter and Facebook) and science blogs for taking science to the public.

Building networks takes time

Apart from the simple and convincing argumentation, what I like about the blog post is that Matt Shipman points out the fact that it takes time to build up the necessary network to get the full value of social media. This aspect is not that often acknowledged. My own experience is also that it takes time, and that you need to be patient in the beginning and that it requires some work. Just like you need to be patient when building up networks in real life. As Matt Shipman writes:

“Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following.” 

And how do you do that? Matt Shipman has a few suggestions, which match very well my own experiences.

“You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? […] Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc”

In my experience making searches on e.g. Twitter and looking at who pops up is also a good start for finding out who to follow. And just like looking at the references in a scientific article can give hints on where to find more knowledge, so does it help to look at who key people are following – making chain searchers so to speak.

Getting people to follow you

One thing is finding out who you should follow, getting the relevant people to follow you is also a challenge, and probably a bigger one. Without followers you are missing the whole point of social media. To get full advantage you need to have the relevant people to follow you – and not only that:

“.. if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are good for drawing attention to things, and communicate short messages but not always for more extensive communication:

“Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less?

“If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere.”

‘Somewhere’ could be an already published article, a new report or an event, but it could also be a blog. Matt Shipman goes on to write about the blog and how it is useful for science communication. I won’t repeat that but encourage potential new science bloggers to read the blog post.

Lots of advice on how to get followers

Searching Google for tips on how to get followers on for example Twitter, lots and lots of websites pops up. For new comers to social media and science, Matt Shipman’s blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience is a good starting point on why the combination of social media, blogs and science communication is not such a bad idea, but also that it requires some work.


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.


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.


All papers at PLoS Medicine now reflect the public Twitter debate

Last week, I wrote how several scientific journals and publishers are opening their eyes to Twitter. The confirmation of the relevance on Twitter also in relation to peer-reviewed journals comes in many different forms. This weekend, I came across a tweet giving another example :

If you click on the link in the tweet (or here), you’ll come onto the webpage of PLoS Medicine and an article by McKee M, Stuckler D, Basu S (2012) entitled: Where There Is No Health Research: What Can Be Done to Fill the Global Gaps in Health Research?

In the righthand side column (under: “share this article” – which is BTW primarily through social media) you’ll see a box from Twitter, called “What the community is saying”. In this box a roll of all the tweets linking to the article are shown in chronological order with the newest first. The reasons for why people chose to include links to a particular article in their tweets may of course be many. It could be a simple wish to spread word of the article, but could also be comments and reactions to the article and additional links to for example blog posts discussing the article.

For the authors of the article this easy access to the Twitter activity concerning their article provides and opportunity to see what the segment, who are on Twitter, are saying about the article – and not least who they are. And for the readers it is a chance to check out who else have found this article relevant. Who knows, they might be people in your area of research you were not yet acquainted with.

The Twitter box is of course not unique to the article by Martin McKee & co. but applies to all PLoS Medicine articles.


A small treasure box of essays on social media and health from NEJM

Once again, Twitter uncovered for me a small treasure box on the web. By following a link in a tweet I found a box full of stories of how social media and medicine and public health can benefit from each other. The treasure box is part of the NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine) 200 years anniversary site and is shaped as an essay contest, which celebrates medical accomplishments over the past two centuries, but with a special focus on the profound changes which has taken place in how information is communicated. To quote from NEJMs own introduction:

“The internet and social networking have enabled everything from romance to revolution. In the healing arts, this change has transformed how the public accesses and uses health-related information. What used to rest solely in the hands of medical professionals now is easily accessible to the public. This paradigm shift brings with it benefits and challenges.

As future members of the medical profession and current users of these communications tools, students and residents are uniquely poised to apply and evaluate the impact of these evolving methods of information exchange on the art and science of medicine.

Essay Question: How can we harness this technology to improve health?”

This question has been answered by a wide range of people. The Gold and Platinum Winning Essays are online for everyone to read.

From Framingham to Facebook

My entry point into this little treasure box was an essay by Michelle Longmire, from Stanford University Medical Center, called From Framingham to Facebook. The name Framingham should ring a bell with almost any public health’er and refers to the Framingham Heart Study, a cohort study which began in 1948 in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. Michelle Longmire compares the magnitude of social media networks with the Framingham cohort and the possibilities which lays in the tremendous amounts of data that social media offers. And the possibilities for sharing information, keeping people informed etc. The commercial sector has already discovered this. When will medicine and public health?

A Move towards Evidence-Based Conversations on Social Networks

Another nice essay is by Daniel Imler from Boston Medical Center, who writes about the potential of social media to pull from two very different worlds, the emotion of social sharing around health issues and the scientific rigor of medical literature. And how social networks enables evidend-based conversation rather than rumour and emotionally based discussion.

#Healthtrends

I also very much enjoyed reading the essay #Healthtrends by Ryan Kahn from Johns Hopkins University. Ryan writes about the world of hashtags (#) and how they can be used in Public Health to do surveys and get people involved. He even comes up with a concept for and project with a hashtag called #healthtrends which he claims could be used to improve the public health of many. Maybe taking the mouth a bit full, but the conceptual idea is there.

And many more…

There are several other small essays which are worth a read – do take a look at them.