Posts tagged ‘technology’

Looking for Health in All the Wrong Places: What Can Health Website Design Learn from Online Dating?

Online dating is one of the most successful online businesses. They even have an ideal pricing model: people often pay more expensive monthly fees because they optimistically expect not to need the less expensive longer term charges. Since any online trend or success has implications for sites for other purposes, I was curious about the implications of the success of online dating websites for health website design. I contacted Mark Brooks, an analyst and consultant to the internet dating industry who runs the industry news blog, OnlinePersonalsWatch.com.

Lisa: What is the newest trend in online dating? Is there an online health parallel?

Mark: Niche dating sites are springing up for every imaginable niche. Support groups, similarly: whatever the illness, there’s a support group online, which can be of tremendous comfort and provide sharing of useful, life-saving information.

Lisa: Online dating is trying new approaches to matching people. What works best, in your opinion?

Mark: Personality profiling sites aim to go one step further than typical dating sites. Typical dating sites allow search. So you can find people who meet your wants and needs. But people don’t really know what they want, until they see it. Personality profiling sites like eHarmony allow people to ‘not fall in love with the wrong person.’  They do the hard work of fixing people up, and use the best information available today, on psychology, sociology, anthropology, a la matchmaking.

Lisa: Do you personally try out online dating sites?

Mark: I prefer meeting people in real life, at parties and through friends of friends. I love speed dating, parties, and meeting people in real life. I’m not so keen on internet dating. But I’m married, so I’m off the market.

Lisa: Which features do you like best in sites?

Mark: Personality profiling and webcam based dating, along with location-based services that help people find matches to people nearby them.

Lisa: Do you go online when you need health information? Can you recount a recent time – why you went online, what you found, and if you sought professional care?

Mark: I’ve not been ill, ever, really.  But when I am, I’m heading online to check what my doctor tells me.

Lisa: What can online health learn from online dating?

Mark: I’d love to see a search engine that matches people with other people in support groups, like them.  Same illness, same geographic area.

January 12, 2011 at 11:23 pm 1 comment

How to Conduct a Competitive Analysis

When you design or redesign a health website (or any other type of site), you increase the likelihood of success if your site is better than or different from anything else available. A competitive analysis is a systematic analysis of “competing” sites to learn from them.

I teach how to conduct a competitive analysis and assign it to my students in Online Consumer Health, which I teach in the fall at Tufts University School of Medicine. The Competitive Analysis Worksheet I give my students has been refined over time. One of my students, Claire Berman, gave me permission to post the competitive analysis she did of the Benson-Henry Institute Mind-Body Medicine (BHIMBM) at Massachusetts General Hospital. It is an excellent example of how much can be learned through this process.

December 13, 2010 at 4:52 am 5 comments

How and Why Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Uses Twitter to Reach Patients

Mike Morrison tweets for Massachusetts General Hospital as @MassGeneralNews and for Massachusetts General Hospital for Children as @MGHfC. I met Mike when I tweeted about the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine including @MassGeneralNews in my tweet and Mike immediately followed me. I contacted him to find out what his strategy is for Twitter use and what the benefits have been:

Lisa: Let’s start with the name: Locally we say MGH or Mass General and even the website uses all variations of the hospital name. How did you decide what to use for Twitter to be recognizable and searchable to locals and everyone else?

Mike: The name was a tough decision. MGH was definitely an option but outside of Massachusetts it doesn’t resonate. Beyond that it was a matter of pragmatism. Twitter limited the number of characters for our name and we definitely wanted “News” in the title so after that is was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Lisa: Do you know anything about which MGH employees – or patients – are on Twitter?

Mike: We usually find out about patients, doctors, and staff on Twitter by seeing their tweets. Each time we’re followed by an account I like to take a good look at the profile to see if they are in one of those categories because I want to continue building that sense of community. We also occasionally remind our own staff about our presence through our internal weekly newsletter.

Lisa: Tell me about your background: what did you do before this and how did you learn to use social media?

Mike: After graduating from the University of Maine in 2005, I completed a post-college PR/Marketing internship at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, MA, close to my hometown. After 3 months I was hired at the Museum of Science (MOS) in Boston as a Publicist in the Media Relations department. I worked at the MOS for more than 3.5 years and loved every minute. Though I had originally joined Facebook in college, it was at MOS that I began to see its full potential as a professional communications tool. Along with my colleagues, I worked to launch both a Facebook “fan” page, as they called it before the most recent “like” change, as well a personal page for Cliff, the Museum’s triceratops fossil. I also helped to launch both the YouTube channel and the @MuseumOfScience Twitter page. The jump to social media communication, though conceptual at first, became a reality for us when the media industry began to severely cut staff. Many of those cuts came from Arts and Entertainment writers and reporters who helped us garner much of our publicity. It became quite clear to us that utilizing social media was an important practice.

Lisa: Explain more about why it was important and also how social media for a museum compares to a hospital?

Mike: Social media is important because it allowed us to connect with passionate Museum fans and communicate our news that, while perhaps not ‘big” enough for traditional press to cover, was important to them. We were also able to have a lot of fun. We ran contests for our Facebook fans and Twitter followers. The staff at MOS continue to come up with even better ideas for engaging fans. In terms of a comparison, both hospitals and museums need to listen and interact. At the hospital we have to ensure that we apply our high standards of patient privacy to our social media practice. Though I didn’t realize it before I arrived, MGH’s world-class research programs ensure that science is very much part of what we do. Some of the most covered MGH stories come from our ground breaking research.

Lisa: How long have you been at MGH, what are your roles, and how did you get this position?

Mike: I arrived in October of 2009. I received an email from a friend letting me know they had noticed the MGH position and thought I should take a look. At its most basic level, my job entails the traditional proactive and reactive media relations (pitching stories/pairing our experts with media). I also oversee social media for the Public Affairs department and do general writing assignments like web stories or annual report stories. Two examples are http://www.massgeneral.org/about/newsarticle.aspx?id=2462 and http://www.massgeneral.org/about/newsarticle.aspx?id=2377.

Lisa: What do you do specifically in this role?

Mike: While at MOS, I would say 80% of my job was proactive and 20% reactive, whereas as now that number is reversed. We respond to hundreds of media calls each year and also operate a live television studio to accommodate national and international broadcast requests. We in Public Affairs work on a beat system with staffers covering different areas of the hospital. Mine include Global Health, Neurology, Neurosurgery, Imaging, and Orthopedics. The other part of what I do – and a major reason why I was hired – was to help launch and integrate social media communications. Luckily my superiors saw the importance of social media before I got here and when the opportunity came to fill a position they made social media a priority. So to that end, I launched @MassGeneralNews on Twitter last February and hope to hit 1,000 followers by the end of this year. I also launched our YouTube channel (www.YouTube.com/massgeneralhospital).

Lisa: Does MGH have a Facebook presence as well?

Mike: Yes, our colleagues in the development office do a great job: http://www.facebook.com/#!/massgeneral , we have a really nice collaboration. Recently, some colleagues and I did launch a profile page in order to communicate bicentennial (we turn 200 in 2011) and history info from the hospital. The profile belongs to Padihershef, a literal mummy who resides in the Ether Dome: http://www.facebook.com/#!/MGHPadi

Lisa: How much time do you spend on the average day?

Mike: Assuming my day isn’t a crazy media day with a major event, I generally work 8:30-5:00 with 60-70% of that time being spent on media calls and the vast majority of the remaining time spent on social media (practice, monitoring, and self-education).

Lisa: What happens with Twitter when you are off duty – do you ever check nights or weekends? Mike: When it comes to Twitter I’m never off duty. While it’s not required for me to check on weekends, I absolutely do. While that probably comes more from a personal desire to grow the presence and not an expressed mandate, I also know the conversation never stops and I like to keep up on it. Occasionally I “unplug.”

Lisa: What oversight is there?

Mike: I’m fortunate to work with superiors and colleagues who “get it.” Though our social media presence is monitored by the leaders of our department, we have a decent amount of leeway.

Lisa: Do you get physicians and other staff at MGH involved, for instance feeding information to you to tweet?

Mike: Often we are approached by different groups in the hospital about the use of social media to promote their efforts. We do in fact work with doctors and administrators from various departments to add their content to our platforms whenever possible and ask that they send us current interesting content.  For example we were approached by an extremely talented group of researchers from our Emergency Department who created a great free app for the iPhone, which lets users find the closest emergency room to their location anywhere in the United States. Our strategy here was to create this YouTube video and then pitch to bloggers encouraging them to use our embed code for their stories. We got great a great response on this as it was posted to Boston.com and Wired.com’s Geek Dad Blog. Although it’s tough to get publicity among a sea of apps, our video allowed us to provide more content for bloggers and increased our chances of getting attention. Even if we didn’t have the pitching success we did, we were able to tweet the video and the link to download, as well as post to our Facebook page. It was a great combination of traditional pitching, content creation, and social media.

Lisa: Does MGH have a social media policy?

Mike: MGH does have a social media policy which helps to provide clarity for our employees and audiences for social media interaction with MGH, or on behalf of MGH.

Lisa: What is the ROI – is MGH doing this because everyone else is or because they see this as essential to their mission, and how do you know you’ve been successful:

Mike: For us, it was easier to think of social media as an important tool we can use to accomplish the goals we already have. We are more of a news/PR office and not marketing so I’m more concerned with communicating and sharing stories or useful information and less about bottom line. Although that’s probably a little shortsighted of me, it’s easier to get started when you already have the goals and the content, and think of social media as a vehicle for both. While I think ROI is important, I’m a true believer that if your reputation is solid you’re going to get the business anyway. To MGH, social media is essential to our mission. Our mission (although I’m not quoting) is to help people. If we know people are looking for help through social media channels, we should be there. For me, it’s like us not having a website or telephone: how can we help if we’re not using the same technology as our patients?

Lisa: How much monitoring do you do of MGH’s online presence and how (obviously you saw my tweet!)?

Mike: I monitor Twitter constantly. I have searches set up via tweetdeck for our Twitter handle, hospital name, and several of its variations. While I don’t log any of the info in any kind of official report, I do respond to and inform folks we work with about any tweets or communications that could indicate a wide-spread issue that warrants a response. Also, if time allows, I do some simple Google searches (blogs, news, etc.) just to see what’s out there.

Lisa: What are specific strategies you use to follow, get followed, tweet, and get retweeted?

Mike: First off, the tweet is king. I try to always offer interesting content, or at least content that is a bit more humanizing and takes away the mystique of a huge faceless organization. Beyond that I try to slowly follow people who are tweeting about us or healthcare in general. I find using hash tags to file my tweets by medical topic often results in followers because people searching that tag are usually the most passionate. Also doing simple things like adding social media icons to my email (as long as outlook is behaving) and putting information about our Twitter handle in the weekly employee newsletter helps. Most importantly, I build followers by engaging. For me it would be easy to view Twitter as a one-way source, but MGH needs to be retweeting and asking questions to develop a truly valuable follower base.  Also, our breaking scientific research news is probably our most retweeted.

Lisa: Do you compare what you are doing to other hospitals or any other organizations?

Mike: I definitely like to see what other hospitals are doing with social media. Any great organization keeps up on industry trends and I think lots of hospitals across Boston and the country are being really creative. It’s also a great benefit to attend conferences with folks at other hospitals because we trade ideas and tips. I think that’s what I like most about social media: the community spirit.

Lisa: For someone starting out in a similar role or wanting to improve a hospital’s online presence, what are your 5 pieces of advice?

Mike:

  1. Content. If you don’t have good content, you have nothing. Obviously this isn’t my idea but I believe it’s the gold standard of online communications. Not offering good content would be like opening a YouTube page to host your TV commercials…snooze……
  2. Commit. Never use social media “cause everyone else is doing it.” Once you have an idea of your content, make sure you commit the time or allow your employees to commit to learning and practicing it. Even if it only takes a minute to tweet something, you need to be looking at Twitter constantly. At any other job, searching YouTube channels may be grounds for a conversation with your manager, for me it’s a matter of researching best practices and keeping up on trends.
  3. Culture. In order to become involved in social media, you have to understand the culture. If you ever friended your parents on Facebook, you get my point. When starting out, just listen. This is especially true with Twitter. For example, someone who doesn’t understand the Twitter culture might find it odd for MGH to retweet a “competing” hospital who just won an award for a service we offer. But the Twitter audience is completely comfortable with this. At the end of the day it’s about standing on your own work, your own reputation.
  4. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. For us, it’s patients. When I think about good content, I try to think about a person who has just learned that they or a family member has been diagnosed with an illness. What they want is to get the critical information quickly. What they don’t want are slick commercials, pop up ads, or a link to a phone number with no information.
  5. Be human. How many times do we hear about robo customer service? Or how some large organization seems like a monolith that doesn’t listen? Social media puts the power back in the consumer’s hands and it’s important to engage in two-way conversation. When people feel connected to your organization they’ll work with you. Even if they have a negative experience, they’ll return as long as they’ve been heard.

December 3, 2010 at 10:08 pm 7 comments

Better Health Websites through Better Design: Insights from Tania Schlatter

I interviewed Tania Schlatter, one of the best designers I know and a guest-lecturer for Web Strategies for Health Communication (pictured to the right), about color, imagery, and other aspects of health website design.

Lisa: How is the design of health websites different than for other types of sites?

Tania: The design of any site goes back to the goals of an organization and what people coming to a site need. Healthcare consumers can be overwhelmed and are in need of highly credible information. While every individual has different issues, healthcare consumers are similar in their need to conduct research and apply what they find to their situation.

Lisa: What are some examples of successful sites in your opinion?

Tania: I like Patientslikeme and WegoHealth in part because they use different models to help people manage their health better. The new Mass General site puts information first and has a navigation scheme that does a pretty good job of making that information findable. Healthcare websites overall do not have inspirational visual design, although AthenaHealth is very nice.

Lisa: Why aren’t health websites inspirational? What would happen to consumer health if they were?

Tania: From the practical perspective, healthcare is about people, and it is very hard to show health-related vignettes that are real. Health-related stories and imagery slip into being sentimental or sanitized, neither of which are inspirational. No one wants to show or tell the real moments in healthcare. There are privacy issues, and anything staged looks and sounds that way.

Change – and inspiration – is only going to come from consumers. They own their stories, fortunately. I have a friend who is a breast cancer survivor and who has ovarian cancer. She posts photos of herself on Facebook. She is incredibly beautiful and strong throughout it all – truly inspirational. Fortunately her images are private, and they should stay that way unless she decides otherwise. I hate to imagine patients selling their stories to help any site – other than one that they control or that is truly for the common good – look good.

Sites that provide accurate information in a findable way with enough depth and context to be helpful are doing what they can, given the circumstances. There are a lot of content-rich heath-related sites out there. More can be done on these sites to improve visual and information presentation hierarchy. There are a lot of exciting developments that can help. Designers now have many more fonts available to use (see typekit.com) and HTML 5 and CSS3 are enabling more layout options and greater control. On information-rich sites typography and layout can be designed to highlight higher-level information visually, break up detailed information and provide video that aid in the explanation of content.

Lisa: Speaking of imagery, many sites use stock images of smiling people, yet the sites are often about serious diseases. What makes imagery appropriate for a health site?

Tania: Appropriate imagery related to health helps inform, so while not visually appealing, photos that show what the text is describing are appropriate. These images need to make sense visually for the audience, so it is important that they are accurate and informative. One way to deal with photos that are informative but not so nice to look at is to use them small and allow the user to click to see them larger.

Photos of caregivers/providers are appropriate and helpful, both as headshots with biographical information and showing people in their working situations. Showing healthcare workers on the job can be an effective way to help site visitors know what to expect from an unfamiliar situation. For example, seeing practitioners with a patient in the care setting can help people imagine themselves in the situation and manage anxiety about an upcoming visit. Patients need not be shown – their back can be to the camera – but it is great to see both the provider in action and the environment. Sometimes organizations are resistant to using pictures of staff to help set the tone on a website because they do not want to show people who might leave the organization. If the images are used to set a general tone (as opposed to identify specific personnel) then the concern is purely an internal one. Site visitors are not that literal in their reading of photos, and the photos can still be effective.

Lisa: Color is one of the most noticeable things in a site and, I imagine, one of the areas where a designer is dealing with opinions, taste, trends, and recognizable branding both from colors that are associated with companies or with diseases (like purple for Alzheimer’s disease). What is the best way to select colors and a color palette? How does a site color scheme work with advertising? I ask this because I just saw MyDr.com.au where the advertisements are by far the most vivid parts of the home page.

Tania: Color is a tool that helps set a tone and create visual relationships. Color needs to be selected based on strategic goals, not subjective preferences. For example, it is a great tool for helping information-rich sites be more legible and navigable. The BBC Health site uses color to consistently distinguish navigation from content, which both looks great and helps the user.

If an organization has colors that it uses in non-web communications, the designer and client team need to consider if it is desirable to link the website to other communications visually. If it is, then using the same color palette is an excellent way to do that.

MyDr.com.au looks like it is trying to balance the need to convey useful information with the need to make money from advertisements. If the site is more colorful the ads will be less prominent, which could be a problem for the site’s bottom line. The site’s use of blue with a little brown is consistent which helps the user distinguish editorial content from promotions and which may help visitors focus on content.

Lisa: When do features like the slideshow used by WebMD and countless other sites, or the less ubiquitous Ask the Expert column, work well for a site?

Tania: Slideshows are a way of marketing or conveying topical information. They don’t work for conveying important content because it is unlikely that a user will see all the slides. Ask the Expert can be valuable especially when a qualified person provides answers. But is all comes back to site goals.

Lisa: Describe the process of defining clear goals.

Tania: Goals come down to knowing who you are speaking to and their needs. Site owners need to know this, segment their users, and then use all the tools they can – from site analytics to in-person usability testing to understand how effective their site is. My biggest recommendation is to be close enough to users to know if you’re hitting the mark through processes like regular usability testing and an advisory council used to help inform feature or other strategic decisions a few times a year.

Lisa: I know from experience how few organizations actually do that. Is that your experience as well?

Tania: There is a lot of resistance to having direct contact with site users. Communicators like the idea but many shy away from doing it. It is uncomfortable to open your work to the people who use it. I think people worry that if they knew what their users wanted they would have to provide it, but that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes knowing what people prefer can help even if preferences are not in line with organizational goals. I was working on a logo redesign for an established organization. Designs were down to two options. One was modern and cutting-edge looking. It captured how the organization said they wanted to be perceived. The other was traditional – precisely what stakeholders said they wanted to avoid. However, the traditional design was favored by the majority of the audience – people who were considered to be “users” of the logo. We knew that going with the traditional logo would be a mistake for the organization, however there was significant pressure to go with the preferred option – it was what people liked. The bottom line is that you need to know what people like and why. When we thought about why the cutting edge logo was off-putting we realized that the organization had undergone several re-orgs in a short amount of time. People were not interested in change. They wanted stability, which is what the traditional logo represented. Once we figured out that change fatigue was behind the preference, we could push the cutting-edge logo with confidence because we could address their concerns in other ways. It takes some work to use user input in a way that is truly strategic. The thought is overwhelming to people who may feel that they have too much input already. It’s ironic since it’s the most helpful thing they can do.

Lisa: Can participatory design be successful, when users are involved from the start in the design?

Tania: Absolutely, it’s a great way to use people who are your audience or to get stakeholders directly involved in design issues. But again, having people participate in the process does not mean that they are designing the end result. Participatory design is a method for acquiring an understanding of end users’ (or stakeholders) situations, motivations and goals to inform the design, not create it.

Lisa: We worked on a Latino Alzheimer’s caregiver site together where there was significant expertise among the team but no representative users until the evaluation phase. Is that typical?

Tania: Yes, it is hard for people to understand that they don’t know their customers, or that they can learn more by having them closely involved.

September 25, 2010 at 11:04 pm 6 comments

From Twitter to Megaphones: Seven Lessons Learned about Public Health Crisis Communication

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:

  1. What is happening
  2. What you need to do now
  3. 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.

Lessons Learned

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

June 8, 2010 at 8:47 pm 13 comments

The “Dark Side” of the Internet for Healthcare

While Gunther Eysenbach is famous for saying no one ever died from using the Internet for health, the “dark side” exists: the people who obsessively search for health information, the people who forgo common sense to believe there are easy ways to lose weight and miracle cures for as yet incurable diseases. Another facet is the credibility of online information; I wrote about a company that was caught and fined for fabricating patient stories in Patient Stories on Health Web Sites Can Not Always Be Trusted in both e-patients.net (heavily commented) and MedPage Today’s kevinmd.com.

Another facet of the “dark side” is when technology is the focus instead of patients. We all, as patients, need eye contact when talking to a healthcare professional. I first noticed this when my children’s pediatrician started walking into appointments with a laptop. I was acutely aware of it when a nurse asked me very personal questions without looking at me, which I wrote about in EHR Etiquette and the Importance of Eye Contact in Clinician-Patient Communication, which was published in e-patients.net/ and The Health Care Blog.

April 19, 2010 at 11:17 pm 1 comment

Online Consumer Health in Jordan: An Interview with Dana Mahadeen

I met Dana Mahadeen, an English Language Instructor at Balqaa Applied University in Salt, Jordan with a background in e-learning. We ended up chatting, not about e-learning, but about how people in Jordan use the Internet for health information. She told me that not all Jordanians use the Internet. Internet use is 18.2% of Jordanians as of March 2008 and 24.5% as of August 2009 according to a different source. I could find no data about use of the Internet for health. Dana told me about health Web sites in Jordan and her own experiences.

While there are health Web sites in Jordan, most are government-operated although there are some private sites. Some of the English language ones Dana knows are http://www.ncd.org.jo/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1, http://www.jfda.jo/en/default/http://www.khcc.jo/, and http://www.moh.gov.jo/MOH/En/home.php. She said that there are other sites in Arabic, such as  http://www.6abib.com/, but questioned how accurate their information is. One of the Arabic ones she uses is http://www.sehha.com/. Mostly she relies on American sites like the Mayo Clinic. Dana said that she knew about the Arabic sites because she has a friend suffering from diabetes and cancer. She tries to keep up with the news about these diseases, to understand the conditions better, and to help her friend at the same time. She went on to say that she has used these sites for herself during her pregnancy and when her children are ill.

I asked Dana why she relies on Mayo Clinic’s website instead of the Jordanian ones. She responded, “It is very user-friendly and I guess I just like the site. I have also used WebMD.” I asked if she had heard of anyone writing a blog about their illness, to which Dana responded, “I can’t say I have, but I have heard of people writing about their weight loss.” She went on to say that obesity is a problem there, not to the extent of the problem in the US. They “are seeing more 10+ year old children getting heavier and heavier and I guess we are headed the way of the US. Don’t get me wrong, most Jordanian adults are a bit on the chubby side but not obese. It is a matter of food choices: Jordanian food is naturally rich and, well, fast food is quite popular.”

I asked if heart disease was common as a result of the rich food and Dana responded, “Strange that you should ask. My husband is a Cardiac Surgeon and he is very busy” (40% of deaths in Jordan are caused by cardiovascular diseases, according to Health Minister Nayef Fayez.) To my final question about her own health seeking behavior with a husband who is a doctor, Dana said, “I am always asking my husband questions and I am always looking online. I like to know as much as I can. The Internet is a great tool.”

February 16, 2010 at 9:38 am 4 comments

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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa: lisa.gualtieri@tufts.edu

@lisagualtieri


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