Palliative care and the media: newspapers, television…. and the internet?

I recently attended the 10th Palliative Care Congress (March 2014, Harrogate, UK). One of the sessions was a masterclass called Meeting with the Media. The following is my take on it.

This session was presented by Dr Helen Jamison, deputy director at the Science Media Centre. It was a very engaging session, where we discussed common issues around “navigating the media minefield” in palliative care. Dr Jamison focused primarily on the Liverpool Care Pathway media storm, although she also gave a very good roundup of tips for media work. I would recommend that you visit the Science Media website and have a look at the excellent work that this charity does, aimed at journalistsscientists and press officers.

The workshop was full of practical, sound advice on how to deal with the media. However, I felt that one key aspect was lacking. This was advice on how to use the Web (including social media) for media work. I am not going to dispute that a good percentage of people get their science news through newspapers, TV and/or radio. That is true. But we must not overlook the fastest, most effective tool that we have:  the internet. The Web. Scientists and charities like Science Media Centre need to be skilled at using the Web to disseminate scientific evidence and counteract harmful headlines. This is as important knowing how to deal with TV and newspapers, because a) journalists are already using  it (including radio and TV journalists, who may use it as an addendum to their offline strategy), and b) it will simply become the main media in the coming years. Because of the nature of the Web, information (good or bad) can rapidly become viral. We need to find strategies to counteract viral bad science, and this must be done from within.

Please do not take this as a criticism to the work of this charity. I think it is crucial. But I also think it is crucial that we have sound guidelines on how to use the Web for media work.

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An app a day keeps the doctor away… Does it? Should it?

More and more, we read in the media that an app a day keeps the doctor away. It is a catchy phrase, yes. But I find it unsettling that it is heard so often, because it seems to imply that eHealth is a substitution to traditional medicine. From my point of view, eHealth is not a substitution, but an addition to health services. An addition that will improve health services, empower users and increase knowledge both for patients and health professionals. eHealth is progress, is the natural evolution of health care, but it is not the end of health care.

One way of categorising eHealth interventions is to divide them in:

  • Purely digital interventions: these are web-based health interventions where there is no interaction with the health care professional at all. Everything happens online. An example: the app MyFitnessPal, where people can track their nutritional intake and other variables, and act on their health based on this information.
  • Hybrid interventions: where there is a mixture of digital action and human interaction.  An example: interventions which use augmented reality (AR) combined with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy  (CBT) to treat phobias.

Each have their own advantages and disadvantages, which I will cover in another post. But my point is that eHealth cannot be seen as a separate element from health care, or an alternative. Whether it is purely digital or hybrid, in order to be effective, eHealth must always be embedded within health care services. Furthermore, it will scarcely work if the medical community sees it as a threat.

I can see that “an app a day keeps the doctor away” can be read as a way of empowering patients, and this is good. eHealth responds to a change of paradigm, where people take ownership of their health issues in a way we have never seen before. But it is also a shallow, easily misinterpreted statement. So I think we must be cautious when we use these kinds of statements social media: not everybody is familiar with the field of eHealth, and it may lead to attitudes that could be damaging in the long term, both for users and for professionals.