About a week ago, I got the following tweet from Dr. Anne Cunningham, a general practitioner for the National Health Services (of the UK):
@amcunningham: @a_singledrop would love your thoughts. Should health profs encourage people to ask sex ed questions on Twitter? http://bit.ly/9RBbO9
As elaborated on Dr. Cunningham’s blog, her question is not based on a hypothetical example but the real Twitter account of one Zena Jones, a Long Acting Reversible Contraception Nurse from Rotherham, who is making herself available through Twitter and Facebook as a resource for teens and young adults to learn more about contraception or sexual health.
This use of social media to promote sexual education flies in the face of what Dr. Cunningham’s sense of medical professionalism and mine as well. However, I may differ from Dr. Cunningham in the feeling that it’s not a question of whether sexual health questions can be solicited over Twitter but how.
Twitter is just simply not a particularly good channel for one-on-one consultations. Even if there were the patient that was open enough with their health information that they would share it over twitter (like Esther Dyson regarding her protracted process of obtaining a breast cancer diagnosis), you’ll never get a complete picture of someone’s health information in 140 characters or less in a forum as open as twitter. By nature, people say different things when they know that they are being read by the general public, and even if there is confusion about Facebook, most young people are well-aware that Twitter is a completely public forum (unless you have a protected account).
Nevertheless, I commend what Zena Jones is trying to do because sexual health awareness is a good thing and encouraging conversations about sexual health in public spaces is important. However, like any social media account, in order for her efforts to be effective (not only from the perspectives of the patient but also as a campaign), Ms. Jones needs to be more strategic than reactively answering questions. She needs to build a community and a following through her accounts before she can expect to see any significant growth in awareness through her social media efforts.
While I am by no means a social media expert, here are a few of my thoughts on how she can do this:
- By becoming an information resource: Studies have shown that people primarily use Twitter, not for connecting with other people, but as a real-time source of news and other information. Instead of reactively waiting for people to tweet her with questions, Ms. Jones should first try to grow a following by posting useful sexual health related information through her account – tips, common misconceptions, news, and other resources.
- By engaging in dialogue with patient advocates, other sex educators and others in the health and social media space: Social media accounts aren’t useful unless people know about them and the best way to let people know about your account is to engage them in conversation or follow them. However, following every woman of child-rearing age and/or telling them about your account would be spammy and ineffective. Instead, Ms. Jones should see who in the healthcare and social media space is widely read by patients and make connections with them to expand her reach. Furthermore, reaching out to these people would also help her develop other collaborations beyond this project.
- By providing a clear connection between the Twitter account and the service that you would like to provide. I state this last but this point is perhaps most important. The most frustrating thing I found about Zena Jones’ Twitter account was that there was no information outside of Twitter about her sexual education work. She tweeted often about what number at which she could be reached, but the link provided on the account is to a sex health education site of undetermined authorship. Her account would have been far more compelling if she linked directly to her credentials and the consultation services she provided over email and over the phone. In fact, the only reason I knew that this consultation service existed was because of Dr. Cunningham’s Slideshare. She needs to make that connection more concrete, not just by posting the link on Twitter from time to time, but also including it in her profile.
These are only a few suggestions that I came up with, but I’m sure that there are many more possibilities for making sex health education viable on Twitter. What do you think?