Posts tagged ‘worry’
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.
When you design a health Web site, the most important questions to ask are how and why someone will come to your site. To help my Online Consumer Health students answer these questions for the sites they design, they create personas and then develop scenarios that start with the persona’s trigger for going online and continue with the persona’s ongoing education and support needs.
Triggers can be related to the calendar, the news, an existing health problem, a concern about a potential health issue, or a new diagnosis or prescription. Triggers can occur because of the time of year: searches for “diet” spike on the first week of each new year and crash a week later. Bill Tancer reported on the frequency of health searches related to a diagnosis of a famous person in the news. The most common trigger is the need to learn more about one’s own or a loved one’s health issue. Susannah Fox said, “A medical crisis flips a switch in people.” With 52% of online health inquiries on behalf of someone else, a loved one’s medical crisis is often the trigger that leads to health searches.
Jill D. is a researcher from New Hampshire whose mother was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal tract tumor. Shocked and worried when she heard this, Jill wanted to immediately learn more. She needed to understand what the diagnosis meant for herself and to help her mother understand it; she also needed to help her mother evaluate treatment options. Jill doesn’t live near her mother so couldn’t go with her mother on her next doctor’s appointment. She would have felt comfortable asking her own doctor questions, but didn’t have an appointment otherwise scheduled. So she went online.
In June 2006, my (then) 74-year-old Mom was told that she had a gastrointestinal tract tumor that was probably cancerous. As soon as I heard, I wanted to find out what treatment options would likely be offered to my Mom as well as the statistical likelihood of survival.
I looked online for information because I’m not in my doctor’s office often enough to be able to ask my own physician, “Say, what do you know about tumors of the GI tract?” Also, I wanted to browse through written information at my own pace rather than trying to listen closely to a quick data dump.
I looked online over the course of several evenings. I know that the trustworthiness of information on any given website is highly dependent on the source of the information, so I concentrated on sites provided by highly reputable medical establishments such as the Mayo Clinic and the US National Institutes of Health.
By far the most useful information for my purposes was available at the National Cancer Institute. The reason I found it so helpful is because I was able to read the same article in two versions, one intended for patients and the other for medical providers. I am not a medical provider but I am used to reading dense, scientific journal articles. Thus I carefully went through a page entitled, “Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors Treatment“.
I learned that these tumors tend to grow very slowly and, if the tumor is localized, the 5-year survival rate is 70 – 90%. My Mom was wondering if she would be subjected to radiation treatment but this article indicated that radiation is rarely helpful for these types of tumors so I told her that her oncologist would probably not prescribe radiation. Further, I found out that tumors smaller than 1 cm rarely spread to other areas (metastasize) but that tumors greater than 2 cm frequently metastasize; this told me that my Mom’s 1.6 cm tumor could go either way.
None of the information in the preceding paragraph was available on the page intended for patients, so I was grateful for the chance to read the pages intended for health professionals. I had to look up a few words, such as “telangeictasia” (the formal term for spider veins, one of the potential signs of GI carcinoid tumors). Despite my incomplete medical vocabulary, I felt reasonably confident that I understood the article and wouldn’t misrepresent the information when relaying it to my Mom.
This story has a happy ending because my Mom underwent surgery to successfully remove the tumor and—even better—the tumor was not at all cancerous. Six weeks after the operation my Mom was feeling healthier than she’d felt in years and went off on a long car trip.
Much like love and religion, health literacy is a topic that many people have a revelation about. It is not explicitly taught in school (unless you study Health Communication or a related topic); instead people have personal experiences that lead them to learn about health literacy and recognize its importance in all aspects of healthcare.
My health literacy revelation came while I was a patient advocate for a Cambodian refugee who had cancer. I won’t go into the details of his health condition; just that I took him and his wife to his doctor’s appointments. During the appointments, I encouraged him to talk about his symptoms and medication side effects and asked about test results and treatment options until I understood them. I always made sure the couple were following and checked to see if they had questions.
There are many aspects of patient advocacy I could expand upon, but what struck me the most was how the couple would ask me on the drive home and even weeks later to repeat what the doctor had said. This was information that I retained but they did not. As I started to read about this, I discovered that studies had been done on the emotional impact of disease and how comprehension and retention were impacted.
While language and culture may had been factors, I believe fear had a stronger impact on this couple’s health literacy skills. Now, when I teach, I include health literacy, especially for its role in the design and evaluation of health Web sites. When someone goes to a health Web site, poor health literacy skills can influence the search terms used, the Web sites selected, and how information is used.
Seven years ago, at the age of forty-six, I developed chest pains, strong enough to make me sit on the floor. With three young children asleep upstairs, I was immediately worried about whether they would grow up fatherless. I entered my symptoms into WebMD and learned enough to know I needed to call 911. Five hours later I was released from the ER – no heart attack. Since no one suggested otherwise, I left the hospital and quickly went about living life as though the entire process was nothing more than an overactive imagination.
Six months, many drinks and cigarettes later, and after chopping wood for several hours, I had difficulty breathing during an episode of the Sopranos. The first ride in the ambulance was expensive, and I didn’t want to waste the money for another Chicken Little “The sky is falling” moment of panic.
This time I did not even bother to look up my symptoms. What to do? I went outside and had a cigarette. Embarrassed by my prior “misdiagnosis”, I was reluctant to tell anyone about the fact that I felt like I was breathing through a straw pockmarked with holes. My wife called 911 when I collapsed at her feet.
This time there was no mistake. I’d had a heart attack – been there, done that, got the stent. What we learned was that I’m someone whose enzyme markers don’t appear until after about six hours, my episode earlier that year may have also been an attack, and my interpretation of the symptoms I read on WebMD may have been right. I also learned a few years later via NPR that depression often follows a heart attack and stays with you. It’s a relief to have stumbled across that information, something I wish I’d learned at the time.
What I also figured out on my own through common sense, research, exercise, and changes in lifestyle, and what was subsequently patiently and repeatedly reinforced by a brilliant and kind cardiologist at Penn is that it’s never a good idea to take twenty-five years off between workouts. I also learned that I have and will continue to have heart disease and need to treat it as such. Instead of smoking and drinking, I now run about five miles a day, watch what I eat and when I eat, and am constantly trying to find relevant literature. My doctor tells me I have become his poster child for how to proactively manage heart disease. My guess is that I can outrun and out lift most thirty-year-olds. While there’s no guarantee that I will live longer as the result of my lifestyle changes, I will live better. (P.R., personal correspondence, August 29, 2009.)
Sen. Ted Kennedy was diagnosed this week with a malignant tumor. I bet he is not online looking for answers right now. Why? Because the answers have been provided by some of the world’s experts. In fact, they are there for everyone to read in the Boston Globe and other newspapers, complete with graphics.
Some say health is the great equalizer. (Others call education, the internet, – you name it – the great equalizer.) Many studies have examined health disparities and looked at the impact of health insurance, ethnicity, gender, and other factors on the quality of health and health care.
Health disparities aside, anyone can become ill. Everyone’s hearts go out to Sen. Kennedy and his family at his diagnosis. But many people, given a devastating diagnosis – or even a minor one – turn to the internet for help.
Before the internet, people relied primarily on their doctors. Now they rely on their doctors and the internet. But do people use the internet because they want to or because they have to?
Most people do not have world-renowned experts chiming in on the best course of treatment. Even the graphics – I can only remember one time that a doctor drew a sketch for me.
My friend Maureen emailed me:
I certainly have used the internet for health information. Usually what I find scares the daylights out of me! Or it’s too general and simplistic- until I find the right sites. Since I’m such a worrier I always need to be careful in that regard because it can be addictive- just one more search!
Maureen, a physician’s daughter, uses the internet for herself and her family, as do many others, obsessively searching for answers. People like Maureen and me use the internet because we are not rich or famous enough to have teams of experts to treat us. Ultimately, no one wants to be ill and, if they are, they want the best expertise available.
In yesterday’s talk, Patient, Heal Thyself: How to Succeed with Online Consumer Health Sites, I started off by asking if I should lose 10 lbs. on the Atkins diet or by joining Weight Watchers. Melanie Zibit answered that I would lose the weight more slowly with Weight Watchers but would be more likely to keep it off. Most people agreed that this was good advice (the wisdom of crowds). I then asked if knowing anything about the weight loss experience or medical credentials of the advice-giver would have an impact, which people agreed with. Using sites like Amazon.com, a book-purchasing decision can be made based on the wisdom of crowds (ranking and ratings), expert opinions (from professional reviewers or well-known people in the field), or other readers (whose reviews are themselves rated). But a poor book choice has few ramifications, while health decisions can have severe consequences.
Many people get weight loss or any other type of health advice from strangers or friends, often knowing little about their experience or credentials; from books or magazines (every celebrity seems to have a weight loss secret or problem, based on a perusal at the supermarket check-out); from ads in magazines or television; or even from spam (I get frequent offer for weight loss drugs without a doctor’s prescription). People also learn about weight loss online – 49% of U.S. internet users search for diet or nutrition advice and 80% search for health advice. A search for “weight loss” returned 75,000,000 results, with “diet” and “fat” getting even more, and “weight” returning 1/2 billion results! Weight loss is certainly a common concern, but searches on other health topics also yield millions of results.
The results range from the Mayo Clinic to herbal remedies “As Seen on Oprah”. Most health seekers gather “health advice online without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information they find“. Information and health literacy impact the search results people select and the sites they use. Poor information literacy skills impact people’s ability to discern the quality of information. Poor health literacy skills – the lack of understanding about health coupled with the emotional burden of health concerns – make it far too easy for people to desire and seek magical cures or easy solutions. There are few reliable indications of quality; the only “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” in health is HONcode.
Sites vary in their usefulness, accuracy, branding, presence of advertising, and amount of interactivity, to name a few attributes. The most heavily used sites are WebMD.com and RevolutionHealth.com, both covering all diseases and conditions. Other sites are more specialized, such as Leroy Sievers’ heavily commented cancer blog at NPR.org, the very focused discussions on the Road Back Foundation bulletin board, and the well-segmented and very active community message boards at Weightwatchers.com. There are millions more examples, well-designed and dreadful, heavily used and ghost towns, frequently updated and unchanged in 10 years.
With consumer-directed care, patients are being asked to play a greater role in their health care. Providers are putting considerable effort into Electronic Health Records, Pay-for-Performance – countless initiatives to improve quality, reduce errors, and cut costs. But when a someone lies in bed at night worrying about their own health or that of a loved ones, EHR privacy is unlikely to be what is on their mind. Turning to the internet is easy with the constant availability – no need for an appointment or co-pay.
Consumer health sites have a significant impact on the quality of life of their users who turn to them before – or instead of – seeking medical help. Many doctors don’t know what their patients are doing online, and many dread the patient who arrives at an appointment armed with search results. “There’s so much information (as well as misinformation) in medicine — and, yes, a lot of it can be Googled — that one major responsibility of an expert is to know what to ignore,” but patients often lack that expertise.
That is where the disconnect lies between patients and doctors: that the time spent online is invisible to or an annoyance to a doctor but is a lifeline for many patients. Doctors need to understand and learn from their patient’s information seeking behaviors. And there is a lot to learn since what patients communicate online is a very different lens on their concerns and needs than what a doctor hears during a consultation, which is a small snapshot of how the patient is feeling, provided in a location much less comfortable than the patient’s home. And doctors need to “prescribe” sites with reliable and useful information, and online health communities where peer support is available.
Technology is not the answer, even good design is not the answer – although both can help. So can better information and health literacy skills. The greatest impact will come from bridging the chasm between what patients are currently doing online and what takes place during the doctor-patient consultation.