David Kerr: Twitterrors – how not to communicate using social media

David KerrMedicine is an art more than a science and the canvas is communication. This week the UK supermarket giant Asda announced that it would no longer stock landline telephones as they are becoming as obsolete as white coats and necks ties for hospital doctors. According to one Asda mobile buyer “standing in one place to make a call just doesn’t make sense anymore, nor does untangling the wire, so we’ve decided to hang up sales of landline phones.” Asda have predicted that the growth of mobile smart phones and the burgeoning app industry is now the preferred modern way of communication. Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook also predicted the demise of email describing this form of communication as being “too slow and formal” at the launch of his social network’s new messaging service.

However this has not been a good week for the mobile phone industry. Without warning users of Blackberry smartphones were suddenly unable to check their emails or use BBM – their Blackberry Messaging Service. The situation was compounded by a perceived lack of communication by the Canadian parent company, Research in Motion (RIM). RIM’s initial but delayed response was to send out the now notorious tweet:  “Some users in EMEA are experiencing issues. We’re investigating and we apologize for any inconvenience.”  For those not familiar with marketing speak, EMEA stands for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Social network sites rapidly became awash with complaints about the lack of communication from RIM and the negative impact these events were having on business. Fortunately healthcare seems to have escaped the impact of Blackberry failure presumably because of it’s enduring attraction to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.

Elsewhere in the social media space, pharmaceutical and device companies are still very nervous of the new media for communication. Tweeted requests for information about a specific product are still usually met with the response “Per our guidelines we can’t talk product here due to FDA regs but you can call our customer service” or words to that effect. Companies are remaining cagey about discussing anything related to a drug or device even if it is within the product specification.

However there are occasional howlers to be found amongst most of the bland industry messages; October is “breast cancer awareness month” so social media has been alive with tweets from patients, survivors, charities, and industry. Most of the industry comments have been written in general terms more often than not in an attempt to guide people to their own website or online patient communities that they support. However one from a pharmaceutical giant caught my eye recently: “October is breast cancer awareness month. In developed countries 1 in 3 women with early BC will eventually be diagnosed with metastatic BC.” I am not familiar with the data on this topic and I guess that the message would be very alarming to women weighing the pros and cons of adjuvant chemo and endocrine therapy. I suspect that the unfortunate individual penning this particular tweet was unable to get around the 140 character limitation and simply decided to omit adding “unless you take our drug.”

Locally we have only just been allowed to set up a Facebook page for patients with diabetes on a trail basis. For day to day communications we will continue to use the old fashioned landline for the foreseeable future, but I do however have a small desire to give our telephone tree answering system a decent burial.

David Kerr wears many hats, sometimes at the same time – Diabetologist, editor of Diabetes Digest, researcher, and founder of VoyageMD.com, a free service for travellers with diabetes. He has received consultancy fees and honoraria for participating in advisory boards for Medtronic, Roche, Lifescan, and Abbott Diabetes Care. He also holds a small amount of stock in CellNovo (a new insulin pump company) and Axon Telehealth.