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:

[slideshare id=8345224&doc=jmack-slidesdoctors202011-110618071340-phpapp01]

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

Highlights from Doctors 2.0

I’m still working my way through notes, video, links and tweets to try and and bring together as much as possible of the interesting content to come out of Doctors 2.0.

In the meantime, here’s a few of the hot topics:

Empowering the doctor, not just the patient
It’s easy to assume that digital health is all about encouraging patients to access information and communicate online. However, several speakers, including Kathi Apostolidis and Lucien Engelen, were keen to emphasise that, on balance, patients have been much more progressive in their adoption of the web. In many respects the more pressing issue is to help health care professionals acknowledge and adopt digital tools, so that they are better prepared for the informed patient who arrives in their surgery.

Taking the hype out of digital innovation

The main auditorium at Doctors 2.0
Panel discussion in full flow, with huge Twitter wall recording proceedings, top right

On my panel of speakers, chaired by Bryan Vartabedian, we discussed the all-too-common fear of digital as a primary obstacle to adoption of the web for health information and communication.
My take-away from this was that while digital evangalists are an essential part of any organisation, they (and I guess I am one of those) can be almost as much of a hindrance. It’s important to take the ‘geek’ factor out of people’s perception of digital.

Evaluating success properly
It was apparent from discussions around the table, that healthcare organisations are still not clear how to evaluate success properly. Commercial organisations either evaluate social media by attributed product sales (very difficult to measure and possibly unsustainable) or simply by the number of ‘likes’ or fans they attract. Not a very useful way of measuring the value of social media, and either approach is likely to undermine the true value.
I don’t think Doctors 2.0 quite nailed an answer to this, but there were interesting conversations about the value of facilitating conversations between patients, so that they can help each other.

The role of Government in digital health
At one point the conference organisers launched an audience poll to ask the audience to what degree they thought Government should be involved in digital health.
Optional answers ranged from ‘none at all’ to ‘Government should pay for, regulate and control all online health content’.
Amazingly, the majority of the audience thought that Government’s should control as much of the information as possible; paying for, and regulating it too. I think this may be more a reflection of the international audience present, who acknowledged the difficulties posed by private sector organisations funding healthcare information.
Personally, I thought this question was a a little over-simplistic in its approach. We need to consider what is already available out there, the quality of that information, and most importantly the role of patients in governing and editing the information that is available.

That’s a quick run-down of some of the hot topics, with more to follow. I hope to pick up on some of these issues through #nhssm in the coming weeks.


Highlights from Doctors 2.0 day one

What is a Doctor 2.0?

Bryan Vartabedian asked this question early on and painted a picture of a highly connected doctor, able to consult quickly and easily with colleagues around the world using a Yammer-style network, combined with a patient platform to help answer questions online and save on consultation time.

There was a fascinating panel of speakers* comprised of doctors from Spain, the US and Greece who debated the pros and cons of online patient communities and the fact that many of the best communities are hidden. They don’t rank highly on Google and rarely use social networks – examples include breast cancer forums and communities for MS patients.

Should these communities continue as they are, which risks excluding other patients who might be benefit? The panel was split on this, with one half claiming that, based on their conversations with patients, the appeal of these communities is that they are not high profile.

I was particularly fascinated to hear from @pharmaguy about corporate social media policies, particularly relating to pharma companies. Of course, the same issues apply to any large organisations.

Some members of the audience continued to feel that social media is excluded from the rules and regulations of health and drug promotion, which, to be honest, was quite a shock. The vast majority of the participants in this workshop agreed that obviously there needs to be policies in place, but that these documents need to be kept as simple as possible.
Naturally I plugged the Department of Health participation guidelines and code of conduct for social media ; )

Social media policies doesn’t sound that interesting, but I think the discussions yesterday support the point I want to make today: that until health organisations around the world get these policies and understanding right, we can’t hope to inspire and motivate doctors to use social media.

Keep following the updates today using the hashtag #doctors20

*catching names and job titles was very tricky yesterday. I’ll add details as and when I confirm them.

Doctors 2.0 – healthcare and social media

June 22 and 23, 2011, marks the arrival of a new conference, Doctors 2.0, in Paris.

The event is all about understanding how healthcare practitioners around the world use web 2.0 tools to communicate with colleagues and patients. Participants range from doctors to community managers, healthcare providers, the public sector and, of course, patients.

Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris
Doctors 2.0 will be held at Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris. Doesn't look too shabby as conference venues go.

I will be participating in a panel on Thursday 23, moderated by Bryan Vartabedian of 33 Charts. Bryan is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, his blog is always very interesting and I am really looking forward to meeting him. I will be joined on the panel by Jorge Juan Fernandez Garcia of the Hospital San Juan de Dios and Alexander Schachinger of Humboldt University. We’ll be discussing patient’s and professional’s experience of using social media, and how best practice compares between the UK and USA.

You can see the whole agenda here, and follow the build-up and coverage by following #doctors20 on Twitter.

I have less than 48 hours to make the most of my visit, so I want to make it as worthwhile as possible. If you have a burning question or comment to share with an international audience of healthcare professionals, drop me a line, and I will ask it.

Image courtesy of