David Kerr: The new prohibition

David KerrThe NHS and technology have had a quixotic sort of relationship recently. A current source of collective angst for the NHS is what to do about social networking? The behemoth of this new genre in communication is Facebook. Facebook and its micro blogging counterpart, Twitter, have even been implicated as major contributors to the recent so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East. In the US, the American Medical Association appears to be quite keen stating that “participating in social networking can support physicians’ personal expression, foster collegiality, and camaraderie within the profession,” as well as providing an “opportunity to widely disseminate public health messages and other health communications.”  In contrast, in the UK, most hospitals have a total ban on using Facebook at work.

The prohibition of Facebook in hospitals is at odds with the view of other NHS organisations. Recently the Department of Health highlighted on the BBC news service a new men’s health campaign specifically using Facebook and smart phones for communication with patients. Even the Royal College of Physicians proudly advertises its new-age credentials by showing the symbols for Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, and Facebook on its website yet has not published a view on the role of social networking and health. Others have argued that Facebook actually offers an excellent opportunity to build a positive and influential on-line persona and that in the digital age, not having a Facebook site is a curious anomaly for any institution particularly one offering choice for patients.

If the NHS is unsure about what to do about social media, technology seems to be very clear that it needs to take an interest in health. As mentioned in a previous blog, a new San Francisco based “seed accelerator” has just named the first 10 fledgling startups to enter its a five-month program that provides a small grant, office space, medical, branding, communications, and legal support — as well as mentoring by experts in the industry.

One of the Rock Health companies aims to develop software to help individuals learn from their brain activity to improve mental performance. Other topics for the start-ups include using smartphone cameras for the at-home diagnosis of ear infections in children, and creating a type 2 diabetes prevention “solution” that emphasizes community, education, and metrics. Another company is creating technology which will allow doctors to monitor and educate patients using smartphones and tablet computers, “helping to improve recovery and outcomes.”

Rather than complete prohibition, the NHS might simply like to educate its staff on the appropriate use of Facebook and other on-line social media by following Dave Ekrem’s rules. These are very simple:

  • Don’t talk about patients, even in general terms
  • Do talk about conditions, treatments, and research
  • Don’t be anonymous
  • Check the tone of your media presence
  • Don’t mix personal and professional lives
  • If you wouldn’t say something in a public elevator, don’t say it on line

In Taiwan, overcrowding in emergency departments has been a major problem but engaging with officials and politicians has been difficult. By creating a Facebook page called “rescue the emergency room” the ER staff have managed to connect directly with the minister of health resulting in a promise of more investment in the service. I tried to find the Facebook page for the UK Coalition Government but unfortunately my “access was denied.”

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