Why medical writing needs to get social

November 5, 2009

I was recently invited to speak at the annual conference of the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA) – here’s a text summary of the deck I presented.

I was given the title Using the power of a digital campaign to disseminate information about health to more people. Not being sure how relevant this was to an audience of writers, I added ‘And why you should care’ in order to focus on the writer’s role in the digital distribution of their work.

It’s obvious to most of us that social media has gone bonkers. I’d spoken to a related organisation, the National Prescribing Service, a year before, and they had all gasped when I told them that Facebook had reached 3.7 million, and of course it’s now > 8 million, Twitter > 1.5 million blaa blaa. In fact, I’m sick of hearing about ‘social media’ – it’s up there with ‘Australian working families’ and ‘we are facing the worse financial crisis since the great depression’ No! Really??!!! More interesting for this group are the health stats; health topics represent over 42% of Australian searches* and rising, 61%**of Americans consult the web on health and 41%** of them consult each other (non medical professionals) whilst (to quote the European Journal of Integrative Medicine in May 09) ‘the evidence for most of the recommendations [on health websites] is weak to nonexistent’.  So whilst ‘digital health’ is exploding, with the rise of health and ‘wellness’ websites, content, services and communities everywhere online, this is a haven not only for the cyberchondriac but also the cyberquack.

Looking at the ‘dissemination’ of health content and messaging online,  traditional digital media communications are being practised extensively by commercial and government organisations across the health spectrum; specialist health digital agencies are proliferating (for example Big Pink recently opened in Sydney) and we’ve seen great banner advertising from Panadol and drive to web from GSK (with the ‘get the facts’ campaign). A cursory glance in Google under ‘Menopause’ brings up quite a range of paid ads – the pharmas are in there with ‘Promensil’, Blackmores is there, and Wellspring are offering a herbal remedy for $39.95 that gets rid of the menopause in 24 hours (fantastic! I’ll take 2!). The government(s) are making great use of SEM (you can’t MOVE at the moment without seeing an ad for the swine flu vaccine) and are, reassuringly perhaps, coming up tops in natural search on a lot of specific health issues.

It’s not exactly ‘health’, but the recent Clearasil campaign (around digital ‘friends’ etiquette, running applications on both Bebo and Facebook) is fairly typical, and follows on from the Kotex U site that successfully engaged girls in conversations regarding teenaged female health. This sort of diversionary branding of content is becoming common and it’s a great form of branded content, providing relevant value added information and obviously, with applications and widgets, yielding lots of viral opportunities, but this now also falls into the area of traditional marketing.

Where it’s really at is, of course, the mainstream conversation in social media environments. “Authentic” is the new black. We’ve seen cheesy attempts at chatter (the recent Windows 7 party video from Microsoft made us all cringe but at least we knew it was fake). The Witchery ‘man in the jacket’ case was interesting, as it attempted to appear genuine (although I’m surprised if people thought it was – I thought is was about as convincing as the Godwin Gretch email, just a little too convenient and so self-consciously casual, but perhaps the fact that I’m an ex actress in advertising gives me excellent fraud credentials). Some of us were alarmed by the recent blatant agency advertisement for a paid job in astroturfing (or ‘social infiltration’). More sinister still are the ‘Champix/Chantix’ video testimonials (a drug by Pfizer used to treat smoking addiction that was subject to claims that it caused suicidal behaviour in some cases). Melissa Sweet pointed out in The Australian Prescriber last year that these appeared ‘spontaneously’ from across the globe on You Tube. Now, we don’t know if these are genuine or semi-genuine, but my point is that people will believe anything – you’ve only got to look at the continued success of horoscopes to see that. And they don’t interrogate the ‘evidence’ of any ‘evidence-based’ medical facts very deeply.

People are definitely searching for information on health, but they read (and believe) what’s in front of them, what comes up first in google, what their mates say on facebook. They buy miracle cures for $39.95. A University of Texas study in 2008 found that 5% of pages on breast cancer contained inaccurate information and that complementary medicines pages were 15 times more likely to be inaccurate.

So DO SOMETHING about medical misinformation. Medical writers should explain the importance of evidence-based sources in everything they write. Publishers of evidence based medical information should use good digital marketing to reach people.  Organisations should work with government to extend the use and awareness of a consolidated accreditation system and this should be extended to writers themselves. Make a virtue of the bewildering volume of medical content, and the public’s curiosity by giving them a symbol they can trust.

But why should medical writers do this? What relevance has it to them?  And my answer to this is; because they care. They wouldn’t have joined the AMWA, membership of which excludes any ‘person whose sole work is directed to the promotion of a product or a commercial organisation’. In other words, they are not in it just for the money, or they could have made a lot more.  So if they care, they should also care about being read, not just published. They should care about bringing evidence-based content to the fore to compete with all the other material that is successfully reaching a public increasingly thirsty for health information.

In this day and age, it is no longer a question of handing over material to a publisher who is then responsible for ‘disseminating’ it – job done. We are all publishers, we are all broadcasters. I’m probably one of the worst practitioners, but what I think or write doesn’t matter, what they write does matter. So my directive was: write a blog, tweet your articles, RSS your blog, tweet your blog, stream your tweets into facebook, follow everyone relevant, join every relevant group, comment and link, edit Wikipedia and Medipedia, write Wikipedia and Medipedia, bookmark all your work, and create a google virtuous circle. Social media is not a just a pastime for medical writers, it’s a moral responsibility.

*Hitwise July 08 (Australia)

**Pew Internet & American Life Project June 09

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2 Responses to “Why medical writing needs to get social”

  1. Tina Allen Says:

    Camilla Cooke’s talk at the recent annual conference of the Australasian Medical Writers Assoication (AMWA) at the University of Sydney (16-17 Oct ’09) was brilliant. It really informed the audience on trends in viral marketing including using really bad youtube videos to sell/inform about a product (so bad that people will forward them on to friends and say ‘look at this awful clip!’). I so agree that we are all publishers and broadcasters and that we need to be careful about the quality of the information that we disseminate on the web. Readers of Camilla’s blog may also wish to look at the blog by another speaker at the AMWA conference, on Croakey (the crikey.com.au health blog) about the birth choices debate — another hot topic at the conference.


  2. […] 13, 2010 Here’s an interesting article  about medical writing and social media Posted in Psychiatry, social media, writing | Tagged […]


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