Twitter and healthcare – could 2010 be the year they come together?

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Hands up who’s been on Twitter for more than 12 months? Be honest!

If, like most people, you can’t put up your hand then don’t worry, because it was only in 2009 that Twitter really hit the mainstream. Created back in 2006, the site provided a unique microblogging service that enabled users to send messages (tweets) of up to 140 characters to their network of followers across the globe. However, by 2008 there were still only a few hundred thousand users.

It wasn’t until the beginning of last year when big-name celebrities began using the service to connect with their fan base, and Governments and big corporations used the site to extend the reach of their campaigns, that Twitter hit the headlines and experienced serious exponential growth.

The exact number of users is hard to quantify, but by September last year the number of live Twitter accounts is said to have passed an incredible 50 million. One in five internet users employ Twitter or another service to send updates about themselves or to see other people’s updates.

Twitter and healthcare – could 2010 be the year they come together?

Twitter and healthcare – could 2010 be the year they come together?

The early adopters of Twitter in the healthcare arena have been clinical groups, hospitals and healthcare organisations who are beginning to use Twitter to communicate timely information within the medical community, to patients and the public. Real-time tweets provide a fast and easy way to reach multiple people in a short space of time. This has advantages for sharing time-critical information such as drug safety warnings, tracking disease outbreaks and disseminating healthcare information.

Twitter applications are now available to help patients find out about clinical trials or to link brief news alerts from organisations like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reliable websites that provide more detailed information. International congresses are now using tweet streams to update followers on the latest news and data announcements.

Twitter has become an integral part of communication in today’s society. In fact, for the first time, the updated Medicines Australia Code of Conduct includes reference to social media (section 12.9 for consumers, 2.4.2 for healthcare professionals) – removing the current ambiguity and providing definitive acceptance of this medium as a valid communication channel within the healthcare arena.

With major health issues like swine flu topping the charts as the second most tweeted about topic in 2009, it’s clear that health will continue to be discussed via social media. It’s time the Pharma industry began dipping its toe into the water and using this channel to openly interact with its target audiences.

If Pharma is not part of the conversation to begin with, how can we expect our voice to be heard?

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The rise and rise of swine flu

The rise and rise of swine flu

The rise and rise of swine flu

Despite continued Global media coverage, swine flu seems to be in decline within Australia, or at least within manageable limits.

The media first coined the phrase ‘swine flu’ back in April this year after a new strain of influenza containing genetic fragments of swine, bird and human viruses was detected. The WHO declared a Global pandemic in June after the number of infections reached 28,774 in 74 countries, including 144 deaths.

Whilst the potential impact of new, fast moving viral strains can rarely be quantified, it has to be said that everyone likes a good health ‘scare’. A random Google search for ‘swine flu’ today came up with over 34 million hits, the vast majority being media coverage. Yet much of the online buzz was propelled by social networking sites with swine flu rating as a trending topic on Twitter for several weeks.

At the time of this blog post, the death toll in Australia is said to have reached 128, with 460 in hospital and 94 of them in intensive care. However within Australia at least, the virus is now perceived to be manageable. Health officials announced last week that vaccinations may start within the month, making Australia the first country to begin mass vaccination against the H1N1 virus.

The swine flu ‘buzz’ continues due to the ongoing impact overseas. Just today, in a bid to halt the spread of the virus, the mayor of a small French town banned spitting and wrote to football chiefs to demand that footballers who spit be sent off, putting the issue back on the front page.

As the northern hemisphere goes into the winter flu season the swine flu ‘noise’ is set to continue, circulating via the global media. Potential new strains, mass vaccination and a resurgence of other influenza viruses like bird flu may add further fuel to the fire.

One thing is for sure – this health story is not going away anytime soon.

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