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Gaps in How Physicians, Media and Policymakers Talk about Health: K-P Study

February 28, 2013
by John DeGaspari
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Two million online health related conversations reveal various approaches

The results of a data analysis by Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente revealed significant differences in how physicians, health reporters and policymakers talk about health, which the organization uses to call for greater alignment among key influencers around pertinent health issues impacting U.S. citizens. 

The online data analysis examined health care-related Tweets, online articles and online posts by 3,200 online physicians, 458 members of the U.S. Congress and 154 journalists. It looked at qualitative and quantitative differences among the stories reported in the media and discussed in policy circles compared to those that physicians discussed online. They were then evaluated with reports such as the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s Health Online 2013 report. The results showed differences in focus on various health issues among these groups.

For physicians’ online conversations focused on high-risk/low-effort prevention behaviors, such as using sunscreen, washing hands and eating well, 67 percent more often than those of media and 483 percent more than those of Congress members. Congress and the media focused on policy-related issues, such as insurance and reimbursement, at least 70 percent more than physicians did. Overall, the online data showed that physicians prioritized health education, while media were more focused on the business of health, and Members of Congress discussed the legislative, judicial, and administrative policies of health.

“Nearly eight out of 10 health seekers use a search engine when researching health issues online. Performing these types of searches can lead people down a path that may reassure them, but they can also confuse and even scare people,” Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., FAAP, associate physician-in-chief, The Permanente Medical Group, said in a statement. “It is the responsibility of all physicians using social media to deliver accurate and easy-to-understand information so that consumers can make informed decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones. Social media offers the physician community a great opportunity to share knowledge, but it is essential that we are thoughtful in how we use this communication channel to contribute to the health and well-being of the general public.”

“As a good example, the analysis found that physicians talked a tremendous amount about non-pharmaceutical treatment interventions, including health tips and lifestyle medicine, whereas health reporters focused significantly more on new drug approvals and milestones,” said Robert M. Pearl, M.D., executive director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group. “We’re not saying that we should listen to one or the other or suggesting that any of the groups is right or wrong—all are appropriately focused on different aspects of health care for legitimate reasons. However, it’s our belief and hope that effectively aligning key influencers around the health stories that are most beneficial for the American public could improve health literacy and, ultimately, our nation’s overall health.”

The data analysis, conducted online in December 2012 by San Francisco-based WCG, analyzed 2.3 million health care-related Tweets by online physicians that linked to 218,934 online articles and posts, 464,272 health care-related Tweets by members of Congress that linked to 71,606 online articles and posts, and 132,108 health care-related Tweets by journalists that linked to 36,300 journalist-written articles.

Conversations were then compared among the three groups in pairs: media/physicians, physicians/Congress, and media/Congress. Topics and themes analyzed included diseases and disorders as collected from CDC.org and health-related topics as collected from samples of physician, media and Congress Tweets. Five specific topics selected by Kaiser Permanente were also analyzed for similarities and differences among the three groups. A presentation on the underlying data, visit http://slideshare.net/wcgworld

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