Matthew Billingsley: How would you use social media during a public health crisis?

Matthew BillingsleyAt the height of the 2009 pandemic, there were 10 000 swine flu related tweets an hour. These ranged from the helpful (“Swine-flu symptoms: checklist to see if you may be infected), to the more ephemeral (“This swine flu stuff is kinda creeping me out.”)

During a public health crisis, how can we accurately evaluate what is reliable information versus potentially dangerous information, amidst a cacophony of tweets? Is social media a game changer in the way we protect the public? Or is it just a new way to project the same old messages?

The BMJ Group is working on a research project called Tell Me, funded by the European Commission to answer some of the questions above. We are going to review previous uses of social media to spread timely information between doctors and at-risk patients during epidemics, as well as developing tips for best practice.

Social media has already been used relatively successfully as an epidemiological surveillance tool to track disease, but how can it be used effectively as a communications tool by health authorities and doctors to reach patients?

Last year, NHS London held a #flusafe  event on Twitter to answer questions, and address concerns from the public and health professionals about getting the seasonal flu jab. This was an invaluable exercise in talking through the options and best practice with NHS staff, and gave patients reliable information to make an informed decision.

But what about using social media during the throes of a public health crisis, where information is constantly being updated from a variety of sources? The open and interactive nature of social media allows us to share and discuss topics transparently, but it is also a platform which can be hijacked by misinformation and rumour.

In the future, there might a greater need for healthcare professionals to disseminate reliable information via social media channels. In the 2010/11 winter flu season, the department of health decided not to roll out a national advertising campaign for seasonal flu vaccination and there were more reports of deaths and hospital admissions related to influenza than during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009/10. There was also a 36% decrease in the number of GP consultations and considerably fewer Google related searches at peak times of the flu season.

When there is an information drought within the public consciousness—should doctors do more to fill the void and play a role in gatekeeping health information on social networks? What would you retweet or post? Who would you trust? Could you be considered as negligent if you didn’t disseminate information to patients?

We are collaborating with @nhssm (a collective of NHS professionals interested in the uses of social media in healthcare) who are going to base their next two twitter chats (6 and 13 June at 8pm) to explore some of the questions posed above. We would like to get as many doctors from around the world in our discussion, please join us on 6 June at 8pm under the hashtag #nhssm.

Read more about: The BMJ and #nhssm team up to run a #fluscenario

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Matthew Billingsley is the editorial assistant, doc2doc and specialty portals.