As part of my visit to the Doctors 2.0 conference, I committed to finding some answers to questions about online health posed by colleagues and contacts.

Social dialog should be seen as a public health imperative for physicians

I couldn't agree more...

Happily, most of the questions I was asked were similar to the burning issues that delegates wanted to discuss.

Here are the questions and some answers:

Should learning to use social media effectively and appropriately be part of a medical curriculum?

In short, yes.

One of the overriding themes of the conference was that the conversation about social media and health care needs to focus on empowering professionals. Professionals need to better understand how to use social media to share information between each other, and to communicate with patients.

Bryan Vartabedian made a good point that, until social media in healthcare stopped becoming a niche or ‘innovative’ area, it would struggle to become more than just the preserve of the people attending conferences like this one.

Bryan and his colleagues made this great video to encourage other healthcare professionals to embrace social media:

This led to a number of discussions about the need for really good policies that help staff understand the parameters and allow them to feel confident in using social media.

A lot of the examples of policy being developed came from the pharmaceutical industry. Granted, they have some different issues to contend with compared with the NHS, but I liked John Mack’s summary of the reasons why a good social media policy is essential. You can see his presentation here:

Does corporate IT governance affect social media uptake in organisations outside of the public sector?

Sadly, I don’t have a fantastic case study of a health organisation, beleagured by Internet Explorer 6, who overcame all the odds to deliver a fantastic digital strategy. In my session I did make the point that differences in IT accessibility across different parts of the NHS affect how easily teams can adopt social media, but it wasn’t really picked up in the Q&A.

What I have learnt is that the issues to contend with are much more fundamental for some healthcare organisations. For example, IT platforms, firewalls and browser versions are irrelevant if doctors and their teams are not open minded to the conversations that patients are already having online. Lucien Engelen shared a really interesting (free) book with attendees: A Little Book About Health 2.0. Lucien states that health care providers in The Netherlands are sceptical about patients and Health 2.0.

With issues like this to contend with, the challenge of access to different social media platforms from within the office seems like a high-level problem to me. Perhaps this is one that is more significant in the UK than elsewhere.

Is social media useful in healthcare now, or is it something to prepare for?

Evaluation is at the centre of knowing whether or not social media is useful now. This was the subject of lively debate due in part, I think, to the mix of private sector companies and health practitioners.

For some delegates it was a simple case of measuring usage. Surely if thousands people downloaded an app, or participated in a community, or bought a product online, then that was proof of the ‘arrival’ of Web 2.0?

For others (and from my perspective), the issue is beyond evaluation. If people are talking about health online, then its everyone’s job to ensure they are listening, sharing and participating.

More to the point, patients around the world need a way to evaluate the quality of information they read online. Jan Geissler, himself a survivor of leaukaemia and founder of LeukaNET emphasised the need for quality information quickly, after a diagnosis is made. You can read a good account of Jan’s discussion here.

How far do other country’s Governments go in providing healthcare advice online? Is it a partnership model or completely outsourced?

On day two the audience were asked what they thought the role of Government should be in online health.

The audience could choose from the following options:

1. None at all
2. Only paying for information to be created and published
3. Paying for and publishing its own content
4. Paying, publishing and controlling all online content

Amazingly, most of the audience opted for number four. On reflection I don’t think these are quite the right answers, for a question that means something different to professionals in the UK than elsewhere in the world.

However, the issue of delivering consistent, quality, health information online is a serious consideration for many countries where there is a perceived free-for-all between private companies, the Government and third sector organisations.

Here, among US doctor-participants at least, was the opportunity to do more online, share their content, and help build resources of information from a pure healthcare base.

Benoit Abeloos from the European Commission led the session on Government and healthcare online. Benoit argued that the starting point for Government’s involvement should be patient data, improved information workflow and integrated healthcare. While I believe this is crucial to the overall improvement of healthcare and patient choice, it doesn’t address the debate about Government’s role in delivering pro-active health information and support in the first instance.

On that score, I came away heartened by the options available to healthcare workers and patients in the UK. Patients have numerous sources of high quality official health information and there is evidence of growing use of social media among health professionals. And no-one is trying to stop this progress. We have plenty of support from ‘the top’. But we need to address those issues from earlier questions – empowering professionals and finding the right tools – to progress health online further.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/ideagoras189/