Are health messages ever social?

I’m excited about taking part in my first #nhssm chat in quite a long time. On Wednesday 11 March – NHS Change Day – we’ll be talking about how the NHS can use social media to deliver tricky messages to different audiences. The chat starts from 8pm on the #nhssm hashtag.

The messages I have in mind are about sexual health and testing for STIs, but the chat could take us anywhere – smoking, mental health, alcohol. What I’m keen to find out is whether these topics are social at all. Do we, as members of the public, want to be approached online about improving our health, and if so, what are the most effective channels? Are there more private, selective social channels such as WhatsApp, that can help the NHS be part of an existing conversation?

In particular, I’m interested in how we reachLGBT, BME and teen audiences.

My interest has been spurred on by a very exciting project I have been involved in and the feedback I have heard and read from focus groups and healthcare workers. Suffice to say I don’t think a hashtag or Facebook page will solve this one.

Join in from 8pm on Wednesday and let’s see what knowledge we can share and how we might learn from each other.

Why heart research is still important

I happen to think heart research is a very important thing.

In my opinion, it doesn’t get much coverage – there are many other health problems to cause us worry, and it seems the heart is generally accepted as an organ we know enough about.

Heart research is important to me because, when I was four years old my Grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 57. It isn’t something I remember, but I grew up aware that he had died, and, relative to survival rates for other men of his generation, that he was young.

Recently I got to thinking about other friends, family and colleagues I have known, who died suddenly of unforeseen or unknown heart conditions and were even younger.

There are lots of deserving causes out there, but we mustn’t overlook heart research.

British Heart Foundation (BHF) run lots of marketing initiatives (I am a fan of their social media work, from a personal and professional view), but if you didn’t know better, you’d say they were focused on smokers and CPR. It’s true that BHF target these subjects, but they also fund a huge amount of research into heart disease and its causes – the causes we don’t fully understand.

In this video, Dr Laura Corr talks about the hard truth of heart problems


On Sunday, 17 June, I’m cycling from London to Brighton (and back again the next day) with Andrew Spires, to help raise awareness of the British Heart Foundation’s work, and in memory of Grandpa and others who have suffered from heart conditions.

If you know of someone who has died of a heart-related cause then add their name to the comments below, and I’ll ride in their memory too.

If you would like to sponsor me, the fundraising page is here.

Maps and Apps in the news

My parting shot for the Department of Health (DH) was to help organise a showcase event bringing together the most popular entries to Maps and Apps.

I’ve blogged about Maps and Apps before, but in essence we (the DH digital team) asked people to suggest and vote for their favourite health apps and maps. As a piece of digital engagement it worked well, generating lots of conversations on our blog, on the crowdsourcing platform and elsewhere. Most importantly the entries that people submitted have been fed in to a policy making process at DH.

The showcase event was primarily a thank you for those who had taken the time to suggest popular ideas and get involved with the project. Secretary of State Andrew Lansley attended, as did some of the judges who supported the project.

However, the project has also generated lots of high profile media coverage. This isn’t always familiar terrain for digital engagement projects in Government, but very welcome nonetheless. I woke up last week to see coverage on Sky News, and in The Times and Guardian.

Significantly, it helped us to produce something meaningful with the press office, rather than occupying the monitoring/rebuttal/publishing space, which is the norm for most teams.

Thanks to Phil O’Connell (an enthusiastic and very helpful advocate for the project) I am able to share this footage from Sky News on the day.


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Sky News LIVE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

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Sky News PACKAGE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

From Land’s End to new horizons

Last weekend I found myself sat in an impossibly pretty Cornish village with colleagues from the #nhssm community. We’d got together to talk about how we can help to develop this modest community of healthcare professionals and communicators, which started a couple of years.

What started as a one-off hashtag to promote a single event now feels like a proper responsibility, consumes a fair amount of time and some cash too.

We’ve had some ideas about to make all the incredibly useful conversations and content that comes out of the chats more widely available, and how we might extend the conversation beyond a chat once a week and the blog. We’ve also identified a need to help the community answer the frequent questions and requests that we receive. First we need to put these ideas to the community as a whole, so more on that soon.

What really struck me as we strolled along the harbour side was the way in which this had all come together. Although three of us are geographically close, there is very little chance any of us would have ever met were it not for making the connection online. And putting real people to avatars is a significant next step in that relationship.

I don’t think we all have that much in common outside of #nhssm and our work, but our common enthusiasm for what we’re doing seems to be enough.

Getting to know each other as well as develop an online community at the same time feels like quite a challenge, but one that’s worth persevering with.

By coincidence this week is going to be another big one for #nhssm. On Tuesday 22 November we’re contributing to two events: the Guardian Social Media in Healthcare conference in London, and the AHCM conference in Birmingham. All the ideas and topics that we’re covering at each event have come from the #nhssm community and we’ll be sharing the feedback and new ideas online, so keep an eye on the hashtag this Tuesday.

Tagging tanks and blogging battalions

For the armed forces, security is paramount. When security is breached it can be life threatening.

I have been aware for some time that the Ministry of Defence has taken a very considered approach to the use of social media by personnel. They seem to have accepted that people are using social media, will continue using it regardless, and that their duty of care means they have to accommodate social media, not rule it out.

This doesn’t mean security breaches can be ignored, so with that in mind they created these compelling, sometimes sinister, and occasionally amusing films. Their aim is to raise awareness of the security issues for serving personnel using social media.

I like the fact they don’t focus on any one channel. In fact they manage to highlight a number of social media functions that people may not have even considered as posing a threat.

If the armed forces can tackle use of social media in such a proactive and enlightened way, then surely there is hope for addressing similar issues in other large workforces, such as the NHS perhaps?

Watch the video below and tell me what you think.


Tags and categories: not big, but they are clever

A new website doesn’t feel that newsworthy, amongst the carnage in London of the past few days. However, a new-ish face for the Department of Health‘s corporate site appeared on Monday afternoon. I’m quite excited about it, as this represents the culmination of lots of hard work by my colleagues.

Essentially the homepage and some other important information now sits on our WordPress platform. We originally used this platform for blogs, but team head Stephen Hale quickly realised it’s potential to release us from the shackles of an old content management system. More importantly this new found flexibility helps us communicate more quickly and effectively with the Department’s audience.

The real story, though, is not about the technology that sits behind the site, but how it is changing the way we publish content. By carefully using tags and categories, we can start to ensure that information is presented in the way that people might expect to find it, instead of it being categorised according to how the Department is structured.

For example, in health, obesity is a subject that is dealt with by several different teams across the Department. Each of these teams would have published content on the corporate site individually, in the sections that covered their particular area of responsibility, or as a reflection of their location within the Department’s structure. Fine if you know your way around a Government department, or know exactly what you are looking for. Not so good if you are searching for the latest information about obesity, be that policy, campaign material or press release.

Department of Health website screen shot
Here it is, in all it's glory

Tagging and categories should hopefully allow this information to surface in a more intelligent way. I also believe that it will help colleagues within a large organisation think more about how their work interlinks with each other, because they’ll see their contributions to the website automatically appear alongside those of other teams.

By tweaking the layout of the home page, it was also a good opportunity to simplify the menus too. A spring clean is always a good idea.

This isn’t an easy process and I reckon the hard work is just beginning. The majority of the website is still sitting on the old platform. However, it has put the audience firmly back at the centre of our thinking about the website.

It has also got me thinking about hospital and regional websites. I wonder how the user experience could be improved if different disciplines and organisations within the NHS contributed content to centralised websites (defined by hospital or trust, for example), but tagged it consistently?

Normal service will be resumed shortly

I start back in my regular role tomorrow, as part of the digital comms team at the Department of Health. I’ve been on a secondment for the past three months.

It’s been hard work, but I’m glad that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and into a totally different area.

What did I learn?

1. Managing someone else’s time is very different to managing your own, even if you consider yourself to be fairly organised
2. A Government department is a big place. Working in a private office is a great way to explore it, and build contacts
3. Presentation is just as important as content
4. Digital has a lot to offer senior colleagues in their day-to-day work, but it will take time to become the norm
5. The true meaning of information overload. Like any large organisation, there’s just too much email, too much news and commentary, and not enough time to absorb it all and make it useful
6. The importance of a strong coffee in the morning

On a more positive note, I have had my eyes opened to lots more of the work that the Department does, and have a much better understanding of competing priorities, and where digital fits in this context.

It may be a while before I volunteer for something similar again, but in the meantime the experience has given me a lot to think about.

Doctors, education and Government’s role in online health: questions and (some) answers from Doctors 2.0

As part of my visit to the Doctors 2.0 conference, I committed to finding some answers to questions about online health posed by colleagues and contacts.

Social dialog should be seen as a public health imperative for physicians
I couldn't agree more...

Happily, most of the questions I was asked were similar to the burning issues that delegates wanted to discuss.

Here are the questions and some answers:

Should learning to use social media effectively and appropriately be part of a medical curriculum?

In short, yes.

One of the overriding themes of the conference was that the conversation about social media and health care needs to focus on empowering professionals. Professionals need to better understand how to use social media to share information between each other, and to communicate with patients.

Bryan Vartabedian made a good point that, until social media in healthcare stopped becoming a niche or ‘innovative’ area, it would struggle to become more than just the preserve of the people attending conferences like this one.

Bryan and his colleagues made this great video to encourage other healthcare professionals to embrace social media:


This led to a number of discussions about the need for really good policies that help staff understand the parameters and allow them to feel confident in using social media.

A lot of the examples of policy being developed came from the pharmaceutical industry. Granted, they have some different issues to contend with compared with the NHS, but I liked John Mack’s summary of the reasons why a good social media policy is essential. You can see his presentation here:

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Does corporate IT governance affect social media uptake in organisations outside of the public sector?

Sadly, I don’t have a fantastic case study of a health organisation, beleagured by Internet Explorer 6, who overcame all the odds to deliver a fantastic digital strategy. In my session I did make the point that differences in IT accessibility across different parts of the NHS affect how easily teams can adopt social media, but it wasn’t really picked up in the Q&A.

What I have learnt is that the issues to contend with are much more fundamental for some healthcare organisations. For example, IT platforms, firewalls and browser versions are irrelevant if doctors and their teams are not open minded to the conversations that patients are already having online. Lucien Engelen shared a really interesting (free) book with attendees: A Little Book About Health 2.0. Lucien states that health care providers in The Netherlands are sceptical about patients and Health 2.0.

With issues like this to contend with, the challenge of access to different social media platforms from within the office seems like a high-level problem to me. Perhaps this is one that is more significant in the UK than elsewhere.

Is social media useful in healthcare now, or is it something to prepare for?

Evaluation is at the centre of knowing whether or not social media is useful now. This was the subject of lively debate due in part, I think, to the mix of private sector companies and health practitioners.

For some delegates it was a simple case of measuring usage. Surely if thousands people downloaded an app, or participated in a community, or bought a product online, then that was proof of the ‘arrival’ of Web 2.0?

For others (and from my perspective), the issue is beyond evaluation. If people are talking about health online, then its everyone’s job to ensure they are listening, sharing and participating.

More to the point, patients around the world need a way to evaluate the quality of information they read online. Jan Geissler, himself a survivor of leaukaemia and founder of LeukaNET emphasised the need for quality information quickly, after a diagnosis is made. You can read a good account of Jan’s discussion here.

How far do other country’s Governments go in providing healthcare advice online? Is it a partnership model or completely outsourced?

On day two the audience were asked what they thought the role of Government should be in online health.

The audience could choose from the following options:

1. None at all
2. Only paying for information to be created and published
3. Paying for and publishing its own content
4. Paying, publishing and controlling all online content

Amazingly, most of the audience opted for number four. On reflection I don’t think these are quite the right answers, for a question that means something different to professionals in the UK than elsewhere in the world.

However, the issue of delivering consistent, quality, health information online is a serious consideration for many countries where there is a perceived free-for-all between private companies, the Government and third sector organisations.

Here, among US doctor-participants at least, was the opportunity to do more online, share their content, and help build resources of information from a pure healthcare base.

Benoit Abeloos from the European Commission led the session on Government and healthcare online. Benoit argued that the starting point for Government’s involvement should be patient data, improved information workflow and integrated healthcare. While I believe this is crucial to the overall improvement of healthcare and patient choice, it doesn’t address the debate about Government’s role in delivering pro-active health information and support in the first instance.

On that score, I came away heartened by the options available to healthcare workers and patients in the UK. Patients have numerous sources of high quality official health information and there is evidence of growing use of social media among health professionals. And no-one is trying to stop this progress. We have plenty of support from ‘the top’. But we need to address those issues from earlier questions – empowering professionals and finding the right tools – to progress health online further.

Image courtesy of