Saturday, February 26, 2011

Social media in medicine: the possibilities are...endless?

Rather than blogging about the entire Canadian Cochrane Symposium I thought I would just discuss a few points from the session I found most interesting. This talk was presented by a group of librarians and discussed how blogs, wikis and Twitter can be used in evidence-based medicine. I'd read about the session before heading to Vancouver and had marked it as one I needed to attend as I use all three media (Blog--well isn't that obvious?; Twitter--yup, if you view my blog in Blogger you can see my feed on the right hand side; and I use pbworks to keep track of the plot, characters and other details from my manuscripts). This is also an area where, if I ever reconsidered my decision to not do a PhD, I would be most interested in studying.

First, let's consider blogs. They're primarily a one way source of communication. I tell you what I've been up to as of late, you read it, and if you feel like it you might comment. It's also a form of instant or self publishing. There are tons of medical and health blogs out there. I follow a couple, namely Weight Matters, Food Politics and Sweat Science. Since my interests tend toward nutrition and physical activity, I follow blogs that appeal to me, but there are many more. Some blogs are run by knowledgeable experts, some not, which seems to be one of the biggest sources of consternation among health care professionals and researchers. How successful is the average person at sorting through the plethora of health blogs to determine which ones provide evidence-based information and advice, and which ones don't? It's hard to say. Even as a researcher and librarian I don't always double check the credentials of the blogs and Websites I read--and I should know better.

One potential use of blogging that I found particularly interesting was the idea that they could be used by academics as a method of disseminating their research findings. In the present academic system I'm sure this would never fly, but why couldn't it? Journals articles can take months, if not years to publish. Why not use the immediacy of a blog to circulate research findings? I can easily imagine the first argument against this idea: it's not peer reviewed. My response, is why not? Readers have the power to comment on blogs. If a researcher blogs about their research, their colleagues (i.e. peers) and anyone else would have the power to discuss the findings in an open and public way--something that's not necessarily the case in the current peer-review system. There are many other arguments I'm sure (How would one cite an academic blog? Professors are too busy and don't have time, etc), but I think it's an interesting idea.

Then there's wikis. I think everyone who's ever searched for something through Google and found the answer provided by Wikipedia is familiar with wikis, even if they're not exactly sure what a wiki is. Wikis are collaborative Websites that allow readers to actively participate in changing/editing the content of the site (as long as they're open access, of course). Several medicine specific wikis exist such as Medpedia, and a health librarian one I sometimes use called HLWIKI Canada. An idea floated at the conference (I believe I heard this suggested in at least one other session, although which one I don't remember) was that wikis could be an ideal platform for systematic reviews. Wikis allow you to update content as frequently as needed; they keep track of changes so that readers can see how versions of pages differ over time; and contributions can be made from anywhere in the world. All these things could assist in the development, publication and dissemination of systematic reviews.

The final medium discussed in this session was Twitter. Recently, my husband asked me why I used Twitter (in absentia of his adviser who didn't understand the point of the micro-blogging service). My answer was as follows: as I hope to one-day be published author (of fiction) and I want to establish an online presence for potential readers; it's fun to follow celebrities (primarily figure skaters in my case) I admire; I can get news updates from CBC; and I've used it to post links to publications I've had come out. I also suggested to Andrew (although I haven't confirmed this) that his adviser could probably follow key academic journals in his field and receive updates about upcoming articles and research. If I wanted to, I could follow high impact medical journals such as The Lancet, BMJ and the New England Journal of Medicine to name a few.

Twitter, I think, could be a great tool for passing along evidence-based health information to the public. The problem I see, is how to you get the average Twitter user to decide to follow a feed that's purpose is to convey health information? The average individual probably uses the service to follow their friends and celebrities they're interested in, not receive reminders to wash their hands frequently to prevent the transmission of diseases. Surely if a feed like 'Sh*tmydadsays' can spawn a television show, evidence-based health information feeds can be used to inform the public of important medical advances/news, etc. Of course there's a whole other realm that needs to be considered: once you hook people into following a health information feed, does it actually change their behaviours? And who has the time, money, methods to plunge down that rabbit whole? Maybe when I can no longer resist the attraction of having the letters 'PhD' behind my name I will. Or maybe someone already is, I don't know.

So there are a few of my thoughts. Attendees at the session had a lot to say regarding social media; however one fellow ended the session by putting up his hand and saying: We're all going to be okay. Throughout history there has always been someone out there trying to sell snake oil to cure your ails, but the majority of us have always managed to determine for ourselves whether or not that claim is true. Humanity will survive the social media craze too.



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