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Twitter used to publicize health issues
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18:48, August 28, 2009

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Twitter, the micro-blogging social media network, is being increasing employed in a serious attempt to distribute information. News organisations have been using the service for some time. There is barely any news network in the world without a twitter feed and many companies actively encourage anchors and staff to tweet. But now even health professionals are turning to Twitter to inform the public of important health issues.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been updating the public for sometime on its feed CDCFlu with information on Swine Flu death tolls and also promotes its offerings on other social media websites, such as an interview on YouTube with a leading CDC scientist. "The messages can be complicated," said Kris Sheedy, a communications director with CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. So in order to post more detailed information the CDC also runs a Facebook page, which has more than 20,000 followers. The site feed includes information on how to prepare for the A/H1N1 virus as well as a lively discussion in its comments section.

In Europe social media has also begun to be taken more seriously and on August 7 an inaugural meeting of Health Care Social Media Europe took place. Identified on Twitter with the so-called hashtag #hcsmeu, this was a conference conducted entirely through the micro-blogging site.

The Tweet Up, as it has been dubbed, considered the use of social media in different European countries, the differences between U.S. and EU in their use of social media, and what drives social media adoption in European countries. Crucially, even leading individuals from pharmaceutical companies such as Roche and Boehringer Ingelheim take part along with industry bloggers, consultants and communications agency people.

The group was set up by Andrew Spong of STweM and Silja Chouquet of WhyDot. Andrew and Silia are both web business entrepreneurs with experience in healthcare communications. Both have been inspired by the rapid development of social media communities in the U.S. The most notable of these is U.S. community Healthcare Communications and Social Media, #hcsm.

Andrew and Silia comment, "We were bemoaning the fact that there was nowhere for health care professionals, patients, health care systems, health content providers, and pharma to gather together in order to interact in real time, when it occurred to us that we could try to create something ourselves that would be fit for the purpose."

"We were particularly gratified by the fact that a number of the leading lights of the ground-breaking #hcsm community in the US were kind enough to start their day early in order to support us, and that both official pharma Twitter accounts as well as representatives of national health systems gave of their time in order to join the debate." The breadth of the debate was also matched by the geographical spread of participants, with France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK among the countries represented.

One major issue confronting healthcare professionals in using social networks is the lack of formal regulations or guidelines. It is holding back Europe while U.S. pharma is becoming more adventurous online. In the UK the PM Society has decided to seize the initiative and will endeavour to thrash out best practice guidelines for the industry to follow. On a healthcare level, France seemed particularly well represented, with links to the French Web 2.0-ish community Sant Log, a GSK France website/blog that looks to contribute to the debate on the future direction of healthcare in that country, and a breast cancer community blog sponsored by Roche. Also from Roche, but this time in Germany there was a link to the companys Accu-Chek interactive board for parents of children with diabetes.

While the Swine Flu pandemic remains a threat, the CDC and other health organisations are constantly looking at ways to keep people informed as A/H1N1 vaccines become available. The U.S. government hopes to target around 50 percent of the population for vaccination, focusing on key groups including pregnant women and healthcare workers. But anyone being vaccinated may need three separate inoculations; one for seasonal flu, which kills around 36,000 people annually in the United States, and two for A/H1N1 taken three weeks apart. Health officials also face the problem of how to prepare the public for the onset of a disease that has killed and could kill more but has so far been largely mild.


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