David Kerr: Using social media in the NHS

David KerrWe recently had another visit from Barack Obama to the San Francisco Bay area. However, rather than sampling the delights of the city, the President drove south down route 101 to Palo Alto and the headquarters of Facebook.  The President was the guest of honor at a “town hall event” moderated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. A Facebook “town hall event,” in reality, meant streaming video over Facebook Live and White House websites simultaneously with a potential audience of more than 500 million people. The idea of Facebook Live is to let users ask questions directly to guests. In the past similar events have included Tony Blair, and ex-US President George W Bush.

Facebook live was created in response to the Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010. European software developers who had planned to attend a Facebook conference in San Francisco became stranded because of the eruption. In response, Facebook built a video channel to allow the stranded developers access to the conference and almost immediately more than 100, 000 people logged on to the site. Since then the audiences have grown and grown with the largest thus far (1.2 million) being for the singer Katy Perry. Apparently Facebook Live plans to become a forum for more intellectual discussions although at the last World Economic Summit the interviewees included Tony Blair, Bono, Bill Gates, and the singer Peter Gabriel.

The main content of the President’s “town hall meeting” related to the current state of the US economy with hints of tax increases for the super-rich of Silicon Valley. This did not stop all of the tickets for a $35,000 a head dinner with the President after the meeting being sold out within days, raising more than $2.5million for the President’s re-election fund. Obama did however use the opportunity to emphasise his view of the importance of improving the teaching of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the US and to make science “cool.” There was also enthusiasm for lowering the bureaucratic barriers to immigrants with technology skills moving to the US, with Obama describing such people as “job generators.”

Currently, most NHS hospitals provide public lectures to educate the local community and also to enhance their reputation. These presentations are usually very popular and invariably sold out. Perhaps in the future, hospitals could be streaming these presentations through technologies equivalent to Facebook Live and thereby accessing many more people than can usually be accommodated in a postgraduate centre lecture hall? Given the political mantra that “patient choice matters” this would allow a hospital to market itself to a much larger pool of potential customers. It could also be a vehicle for providing public health information to a large audience and provide patients with information about changes in service provision. However to achieve this type of technology development will mean raising the status of hospital IT departments and the level of remuneration in order for them to compete with the private technology sector in attracting the highest quality candidates. An alternative option would be partnerships between a non-profit hospital and a for-profit technology company. Unlike the US, this latter option may be a step too far for many in the NHS at the moment.

As mentioned here and elsewhere the consumer technology behemoth is nudging at the gates of the NHS. The new generations of clinicians are already familiar with the new media but the need is to develop social media for health rather than adapting health care to cope with the challenges that the new media brings. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have the potential to be disruptive technologies and could be used for the benefits of patients but not everyone is persuaded. The tech journalist, Alexia Tsotsis, recently remarked “why aren’t Internet achievements treated as miraculously as Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong’s lunar footsteps on July 20, 1969?…..That’s one small tweet for a man, one giant status update for mankind …”

David Kerr is the managing editor of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.