Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to Cancer Care Ontario‘s LEARN community of practice meeting in Toronto about social media and how it could be used to support their health promotion (specifically tobacco control) work with youth and young adults. This group does a lot of work with young adults so information technologies are not alien to them (indeed, many had blogs, Facebook pages and other social media tools), yet they were still uncertain about how best to use these tools and why they might want to in the first place. In preparing for the presentation and in the subsequent discussion afterwards I had this overwhelming sense of having been here (and there) before. It was, as Yogi Berra famously said: deja vu all over again.
My first study on the Internet was conducted in 1995, a time when the World Wide Web was just becoming known outside of academia and the best option for social support was UseNet groups. With a friend of mine, we did the first (to my knowledge) global survey on the use of the Internet for social support (note: this is why its important to publish your results as soon as you get them, otherwise it will never happen 😦 . I did, however, present findings at the Prairie Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Winnipeg, perhaps the most remarkable event in support of student scholarship in psychology (or any other discipline) I’ve witnessed. But I digress…)
As I moved along in my career, I continued to work with the Internet as a tool — from discussion boards to interactive smoking cessation support tools and using qualitative methods and design principles to large randomized trials. All along I would hear (and still do) comments like “isn’t that (technology) stuff just for fun?” or “why would anyone want to use that?” .
The same pattern keeps repeating. 20 years ago if you were to describe using email as a serious means of communicating – something that one should devote work time to – most employers would scoff. Now, email is integrated deeply into the very fabric of nearly every knowledge-based enterprise to the point that the corporate market for mobile services to deliver email to its workforce is in likely in the billions. 10 years ago if you were found in your office searching the World Wide Web for content of a serious (i.e., work-related) nature, a similar scoff might come. Now? Open access journals are becoming top publishing venues in their field (see the Journal of Medical Internet Research in the Health Services Research area as one example) and tools like Google Scholar are invaluable resources for scientists and practitioners alike. The LEARN group gets this. They are the ones who are trying things out and trying to push the boundaries of their organizations, changing mindsets and considering whether or not social media is for them or not and in what measure.
A few months ago I spoke to another, similar group of health practitioners about eHealth and asked the audience about their experience using social media. Many of these settings — particularly public health units — didn’t allow Facebook or YouTube to be accessed. Presumably, it was to avoid people doing things that weren’t serious work. This all reflects a mindset pattern that repeats in many organizations — public health or otherwise: people don’t see how the new technology can help because it is not obvious (or they haven’t even tried it), therefore it is dismissed as irrelevant or even banned outright.
The challenge here — and one that I take up — is about lowering these barriers through education. I think it is imperative that those of us (perhaps you, dear reader) who work in social media and eHealth help others to support their efforts to change the culture of their organizations. The LEARN folk are doing this, just as I did so with them. No matter how much we as ‘experts’ like to showcase new tools, we are the early adopters and massive social change will not happen until we inspire the next wave of people to take it up. One forum for this is at the eHealth Promotion social network, a Ning group formed out of the experiences at this year’s Health Promotion Summer School in Toronto, that was on the very topic of teaching people about eHealth in public health. Best of all, when we get these new adopters joining into the discussion and familiar with the tools, they can also help us determine what doesn’t work with these tools, what their limits are, and even what risks they bring in a manner that is informed, constructive and not dismissive.
If public health is going to be innovative, that is doing things that haven’t been done or in new ways to address emerging problems, then it needs to understand social media. What and how much it adopts it is really a matter of need and circumstance, but as I pointed out in my talk yesterday, we cannot wait for the evidence to come in to make that leap. Last year, the research on Web-Assisted Tobacco Interventions (perhaps the leading domain of public eHealth research) finally reached a point where we could say with some confidence that the principal of using the Web to support smoking cessation and prevention is evidence-based. That was more than 15 years after the birth of WWW.
Are we going to have to wait another 15 years before public health widely adopts tools like microblogging (e.g. Twitter) or considers the use of mobile messaging and video or social networks in its work? By then the evidence might be in and if that is what it takes to get this adopted or accepted it will be deja vu all over again, and that’s not a good thing.