Posts tagged ‘expertise’
Many food and health websites include the services of a nutritionist to answer consumer questions by email or on the site. Vicki Koenig, MS, RD, CDN is a Nutritionist who works for Stonyfield Farm and one of her responsibilities there is responding by email to “Ask our Nutritionist” questions. Vicki receives between 40 and 70 questions a month and answers them all individually, although for some she peruses her archive of her previous answers, which is categorized by topic, and the articles she wrote for the site. The most common are gluten-free, diet, and probiotic questions. People are also interested in where the milk comes from and how the cows are treated. There are many “off-the-wall” ones; the strangest of which was a request for a yogurt-covered dog biscuit recipe (which she found and sent). One of the most absurd was someone asking can your stomach explode from a food-eating contest (it can’t, Vicki assured me).
Despite their disclaimer (The information provided by our nutritionist is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or give medical advise [sic]. Always consult your family health practitioner before altering your health regimen) people ask Vicki questions that are out of the context of her role. There are many from people who are desperately looking for answers to serious health problems, and she refers them to sites like the American Dietetic Association or other profession organizations. For instance, someone recently wrote that she has lupus and wanted to know what to do, and Vicki provided links but not a personalized diet.
To ask Vicki a question requires a name and email address, which makes sense since she responds by email. There is also a picture of her with her daughters and a bio; both make her seem very human and welcoming. When I asked, Vicki said that she needed to update the picture since her children are older now and that a marketing person contributed to part of the bio. She emphasized that she is very human. She stated that she’s a health professional, working mom, business partner with her husband and a consumer too.
Vicki also answers some of the questions that arrive through Facebook especially if clarification is needed. She contributed to the FAQs on the website and wrote all the articles in the Healthy Tips Library. She doesn’t respond to Twitter. Vicki has her own Facebook page, which she uses frequently, and a less used Twitter account. Her private practice has a website as well, which links to her Stonyfield articles (but does not include an Ask the Nutritionist feature).
One of the things I was curious about, especially after learning the volume of questions Vicki gets, was why Stonyfield doesn’t promote Vicki’s Q&A more and why it is done as private correspondence as opposed to being displayed and archived prominently on the site. Stonyfield’s response was:
We agree that our Ask our Nutritionist is a valuable and beneficial feature for our consumers. We can and should do a better job at featuring some of the frequently asked questions that consumers raise as they relate to health through good nutrition and organic foods. We tried to address this by providing related topics in our Healthy Tips Library, as well as focus on key product attributes that Stonyfield can deliver i.e. DHA, Omega 3s, etc.
I looked at a few other food company websites: Del Monte and Lean Cuisine are two that offer a list of Q&A with a nutritionist. Del Monte’s features a picture and bio of their nutritionist and an uncategorized list of questions with the promise that a new one is answered weekly from those submitted. Lean Cuisine has far more questions which are selected from some of “the most popular ones” asked and categorized. While the topics make sense, not all categories are populated. Some of the answers include product promotion. There is no bio with the picture of the nutritionist and registration is required to ask a question. Both are easy to find from the home pages.
The Dana Farber Cancer Center website includes a categorized Ask the Nutritionist Archive. The questions and answered are very detailed and specific to cancer patients. They also include a first name, last initial, and city and state, making them seem more authentic.Like the Stonyfield site, they are hard to find (without doing a search).
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has an Ask the Nutritionist blog, where the comment field is used to ask questions and the answers are included below the question. While not categorized by topic, they are scrollable and many are very detailed and specific. There is also a picture and name but not a bio of the nutritionist. The blog is hard to find from the Dept. of Public Health site.
Go Ask Alice, a website developed by Columbia University primarily for college and high school students, has a page of nutrition questions. While the people responding are not identified by name or picture, the site states that all questions are answered by a team including Columbia University health educators. Each question includes the date originally published and the date last updated/reviewed and ends with links to related Q&As.
Curious I searched a little more and found other examples. Some, like Meritus Endocrinology, have an extensive archive while Washington Hospital Center’s Ask the Dietitian has a short list of questions. All the ones I found archived questions, although without any identifying information or a date, and most made it easy to ask questions. Stonyfield is therefore unusual in not providing an archive of questions.
If I was redesigning the Stonyfield site, I would include Vicki on the home page and let people coming to the site know that she is available to answer questions because it is such a valuable service and one that benefits the company in the helpfulness of this service to those who manage to find it on the site. (Of course, if more people know of Vicki’s availability, then her services might have to be limited.) I would include Vicki’s most recent Q&A on the home page with a link to the archive as a draw. Finally I would include at least a partial archive of questions and answers and, like Go Ask Alice! would include a date, and, like Dana Farber, would include at least a first name, city, and state because it makes it seem more like it came from a real person. However none of the questions I looked at on the above sites were generic or seemed fabricated because of the level of detail. The archive could prove valuable since someone else might have a question that you didn’t think to ask but benefit from. While there is already an enormous amount of information available online, the credibility of a nutritionist and the easy to digest (not an intentional pun) format of a Q&A could only benefit Stonyfield and allow more consumers to learn from other people’s questions and Vicki’s answers.
In Boston we took the availability and quality of our tap water for granted until May 1, 2010, when a major water pipe break interrupted water service to two million Greater Boston residents. Information spread quickly to citizens about the problem and what to do, all the more notable because the water main break occurred on a Saturday. In this age of consumer paranoia about withheld information, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) was in front of cameras and online, communicating what they knew and what they were doing. Tufts University and the Boston Public Health Commission used communication channels ranging from Twitter to megaphones to get the word out. Their behind-the-scenes emergency planning processes, their response to this incident, and seven lessons learned from this short-lived crisis are applicable to many other crises.
The Evolution of the Tufts Emergency Alert System
Because I learned about the broken water main in a text message from Tufts University, where I teach, I spoke to Geoff Bartlett, Technical Services Manager in the Department of Public and Environmental Safety (DPES) at Tufts about the process they used to communicate about the broken water main. First he told me how Tufts Emergency Alert System started and evolved. Following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, DPES, University Relations, and University Information Technology invested in emergency notification system technology and developed policies for when and how it would be used. The Tufts Emergency Alert System was initially intended for life threatening emergencies after the events on the Virginia Tech campus showed the need for rapid and reliable campus-wide communication. In requesting student and employee contact information, Tufts made this clear since they thought people would be reluctant to participate if they anticipated inconsequential messages.
Tufts first used the emergency alert system to inform the campus of the status of a power outage in October 2008 because the email communication plan in place for this type of Tier 2 emergency wouldn’t work because of the lack of electricity. This initial use led to the revised policy that the emergency alert system should be used aggressively for dire emergencies but less aggressively when there is no threat to health, safety, or life. Almost exactly one year later, there was another power outage in October 2009, and short text messages were sent. While there was planning for H1N1, the emergency alert system was never used because there was no urgency to push messages. The third use was for the water main break.
How Tufts Creates Messages
While Tufts considered preparing messages in advance, it didn’t seem possible to anticipate every situation. Instead they created “Strunk and White” guidelines for crisis communication. Their three guiding principles for creating initial messages are:
- What is happening
- What you need to do now
- Where to go for more information.
Messages must be succinct because of cell phone screen size and to increase the likelihood people read them, avoid jargon and abbreviations, and be composed for easy conversion into speech. While the Tufts community is tech-savvy, they are aware that not everyone is connected all the time therefore some messaging includes spreading the word. For many emergencies, especially life-threatening ones like violent criminal incident or tornado warning, content is pre-scripted by Tufts using sources such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
In the case of the water main break, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent out the initial message. When Geoff received the message on Saturday, May 1, he was in a command post on campus with police, fire, and EMS personnel where they were managing the public safety aspects of the Spring Fling concert. Because there was no reported danger or health threat, email was used initially. Later in the day, after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, DPES fully activated the emergency alert system. In addition, email, word of mouth, Twitter, and the web were used to spread information.
I asked Geoff if there was concern about any health issues arising from students who drank tap water. He said that there was an FAQ that included the consequences of ingesting water. However the information they were receiving from the state agencies, and therefore their focus, was on the status of the water main break and what to do, such as the boil water order. Student feedback after the crisis ended was largely positive but included that there were terms, like boil water order, that they didn’t understand.
The Boston Public Health Commission Emergency Preparedness Process
To see how a public health organization responded, I looked at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) website and spoke to Susan Harrington. She had guest-lectured in my Online Consumer Health course about their use of the web and social media and I wanted to see how they deployed them in an emergency like the water main break.
BPHC and its partners participate in emergency preparedness exercises to refine their coordination and response. In 2007, BPHC worked with the postal office on a large-scale exercise and last year they responded to the real-life H1N1 epidemic. Just last month, BPHC invited businesses, health care settings, and other partner organization to a Flu Review, where they discussed how BPHC responded, including what they did well, what didn’t work, and made recommendations as they prepare for the next flu season this fall.
How the Boston Public Health Commission Alerted Residents
Susan was in a city not affected by the burst water main on the Saturday the news was announced and received a call from work alerting her to the situation. Working in concert with federal, state, and city agencies, the Mayor’s Office and BPHC relayed important information and coordinated response efforts. The immediate issue was reaching people, which the BPHC first did through Twitter, Facebook, and their website. The Mayor’s Office posted information on its own sites and used its reverse 911 phone system to alert residents. Boston police officers drove up and down streets using megaphones and loudspeakers. BPHC set up conference calls with area hospitals and staffers were sent out to food-service establishments who needed to quickly adapt their procedures for the boil water order. Throughout the weekend, the Mayor’s 24-hour hotline added staffers to help answer any questions residents had. The Mayor’s Office and BPHC also called upon their partners, which included faith-based organizations, schools, and businesses, to spread the message through their own channels, and asked residents to inform the elderly who may not have access to the web and social media. The challenge was responding quickly and reaching as many people, wired or not, as possible. These techniques had been used to spread the word about H1N1 vaccine availability.
Twitter proved very effective at relaying up-to-the-minute news. While Twitter is global, people use the #Boston hashtag and other filters to get local information including traffic updates, event listings, and even local celebrity sightings. Not long after boil water order was issued, the Twitterverse was abuzz with the news – even dubbing a new hashtag for the emergency: #aquapocolypse. The most influential – and most followed – Twitter profiles were not only pushing out timely information, but passing on questions to BPHC, allowing them to respond and dispel any myths.
Creating Fact Sheets
No matter what the crisis, some people worry and they are the ones who especially need facts. One of the main BPHC priorities was posting information and fact sheets to the BPHC website. As a homeowner Susan knew what questions she had, but she had to consider the broad demographics of Boston in terms of where people live, the languages they speak, and their access to water.
BPHC worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to create easy-to-read and culturally appropriate guidelines for the boil water order for Bostonians, including translating the fact sheets into multiple languages using a professional translation company with proofing by Commission staffers. These materials were later updated to reflect the lifting of the boil water order and subsequent flushing out instructions.
I asked Susan about the extent to which they date materials. In a crisis, knowing that an update is available and when it was issued is crucial. Throughout the flu response and boil water order, they posted dates on their websites, but in a non-emergency she said it is a challenge to keep an entire website updated. Fact sheets often are dated but other online materials may not be.
Health Issues and Disease Tracking
I taught a course in Shanghai once and remembered the advice I was given about the level of bacteria being higher in the tap water than Americans are used to. I slipped back into Shanghai-mode and remembered to rinse my toothbrush with bottled water and the myriad of other pointers I had been given. I was curious if Boston residents who drank tap water during the emergency expressed health concerns. Susan said that if pathogens were in the water, people may have experienced minor gastrointestinal illness after consuming that water. A greater concern would be for residents who are immunocompromised.
The BPHC uses a sophisticated surveillance system to track diseases in Boston. (In fact, Boston has been nationally recognized for its disease tracking system.) Health care settings report diseases to BPHC, which in turn, conducts a follow-up investigation and identifies the source of the illness, such as food contamination. These disease patterns are tracked over time. In the case of the boil water order, there was no spike in gastrointestinal illnesses. Google has a less formal process of tracking disease patterns, collecting search phrases to find trends including the spread of illness. Google’s H1N1 flu trend matched up fairly well to Massachusetts’ trend lines.
Susan Harrington and Geoff Bartlett both thought the MWRA did a great job of letting people know what they knew, what they didn’t know, and what they were doing to find answers and repair the pipe. This was essential not just to inform people but to allay paranoia and fears given well-publicized situations like Toyota and Vioxx where information was not publicly disclosed in a timely fashion.
Some lessons learned about rapid health communication from the water main break are:
- Develop a rubric to assess the type of crisis as it impacts your institution. When the crisis is over, review, solicit feedback, and refine using what the military call an After Action Review.
- Identify and coordinate with partners in advance. In the case of the water main break, an impressive number of groups coordinated efforts seemingly seamlessly and, in many cases, behind the scenes. Ria Convery, Communications Director for the MWRA, told me that their response can be attributed to the 2-3 drills they perform every year “on a number of different scenarios ranging from dam failures to hurricanes to flu epidemics. Sometimes we perform a ‘tabletop’ exercise and sometimes we involve the whole universe of state agencies and run through an entire ‘event’. Every single drill, no matter the topic, provides an important opportunity for people to think through and be prepared for the worst case.”
- Prepare a communication plan for each type of crisis. While newspapers write obituaries for famous people in advance, you can’t anticipate all eventualities. However, you can prepare guidelines and immediately use them. Flexibility needs to be built in to communication plans, even to the definition of a life threatening emergency and when to select modalities that “wake you up” or more passive ones like email.
- Carefully construct messages to convey needed information succinctly. High-quality materials take time to produce because it’s important to first gather facts and then create and review accurate, appropriate, and easy-to-understand information, be they short like text and Twitter messages, or less constrained by length. Dating material is especially important in a crisis.
- Create messages that inform and allay unnecessary fears. Think like – or talk to – your target audience. Be careful about jargon, although everyone in Greater Boston quickly became conversant quickly with “MWRA” and “boil water order”, which are not in the common vernacular. Terminology was also an issue with H1N1: swine flu was the term adopted by the press initially, but it was distracting because of the association with pigs.
- Use social media, which can be both fast and local. Use emerging informal partners, who Malcolm Gladwell calls mavens, to facilitate the spread of messages in Twitter. But even when people are wired, they aren’t always online. The low tech megaphone and word of mouth works best for some.
- Use crises to educate people. While the water main break left many people with a heightened appreciation for their tap water, it was short-lived. However there may be a missed opportunity here to educate people about water sources, safety, and conservation as well as about emergency response.
I wrote the cover story of Tufts Medicine, Winter 2009, with Dr. Janey Pratt, a surgeon at Mass. General Hospital. The article looks at patient use of the Internet from the physician perspective. The article concludes:
Online resources can help your patients become better educated about medical topics, more confident and comfortable with you and more compliant with treatment. As Anthony Schlaff, director of the M.P.H. program at [Tufts University School of Medicine], notes, “At its best, the Internet is one more tool in the partnership between a physician and patient.” [Bruce] Auerbach, the Massachusetts Medical Society president, couldn’t agree more. “Given that patients are going online,” he says, “the best thing to do is engage them as partners in care.”
The full article can be read at Dr. Google: Your Patients, the Internet, and You.
I had the pleasure to talk today to Mary Morgan, who is the widow of Dr. Benjamin Spock. She founded the Dr. Spock Company, which built drspock.com after his death. She told me that during “the dot com rage” she was approached by many people to do a Pediatric site which would emphasis child development and include a new section on OB/GYN. Ms. Morgan’s primary impetus was to provide a tool to help parents raise their children in conjunction with the newly revised Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. The site offers an order of magnitude more information than the book, with different ways of delivery, including experts on child development, a feature that is not common on Pediatric sites.
Ms. Morgan is interested in building a new and updated Pediatric site in conjunction with these medical experts. Her goal is to have a site that is easier to revise and update and has the “oomph it needs”. She will be guest lecturing to my Online Health Communities class and, as one of their class projects, they will work on the design of the new site.
If you use the book or the site, what online features could help you be a better or more knowledgeable parent?
I love chocolate but have never considered that the amount I eat is unhealthy. In fact, how common is it to eat chocolate – or any other food – to the point of being worried? In the case of white_sakura (someone’s user id), she (I believe the people posting here are female) said in a forum, “I was wondering if it is too much to have about 30% of my calorie allowance to go toward chocolate.” The forum, part of calorie-count, from About.com Health, is a site for people who are concerned about weight loss and nutrition.
In response to her post, w_s, as someone nicknamed her, received 6 responses in 2 days and also provided clarification a few times. It was quite a lively discussion compared to some forums, where questions go permanently unanswered. In the ensuing discussion, one person told w_s what seemed like practical advice to me: “30% would be too much. Chocolate, although lovely, is just sugar and fat… the real downside is that you’d be trying to get all your nutrition from the remaining 70% of your diet.” Another agreed, “30% is waayyyy too high.” Someone else differed in her view, “If it fits in your cals and you feel good, go for it!”
Other advice was to try savoring her chocolate – which w_s was already doing, taking an hour to eat 2 squares. Wow, she must not have a busy schedule. I suppose you could savor the taste of chocolate for hours as long as you don’t work in a call center where you have to answer the phone and talk to people. Or any other occupation where you have to talk to people. Or touch anything. That doesn’t leave many jobs.
A side discussion had to do with the reported health benefits of dark chocolate, including a link to an article in WebMD, which reports on a study and concludes that a balanced diet and exercise is the key to a healthy heart. The same person wrote about her own daily chocolate consumption, which “keeps me from overindulging in some other not-so-good-for-me things”. Did she mean licorice, Pringles, or more serious vices?
Many people are more comfortable seeking peer advice online, often more open anonymously than they would be with their doctor – or a close friend. (Actually, that made me wonder if w_s has a spouse or roommate, and, if so, does she eat in front of him or her?) It’s also heartwarming that people respond, and most empathically. No one called w_s obsessive or addicted or recommended that she take a leap into Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate. However, only two responses seemed medically sound, those saying that 30% is too high. No one suggested making an appointment with a doctor or nutritionist or following a plan for a nutritionally-balanced diet.
There was only one mention of a specific product in a response, a type of Lindt chocolate. After reading that I noticed that the banner ad was for car insurance and the sidebar ad was for flights to London – now Switzerland I could understand! More relevant to the discussion topic, the banner at the bottom was a meter for diabetics. That ad crystallized the issue for me: poor nutrition can have severe consequences. My advice to w_s: getting anonymous online advice is great but this is a case where professional medical advice could add healthy years to your life.