organized curiosity

Improving health care through research

“Did you see this video on You Tube?”

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“Did you see this video on You Tube?” This is a question I over-hear or have had directed at me more times than I can count. Usually by one of my three children who want to keep me abreast of the latest post-wisdom-tooth-extraction-delirium or cute-puppies-sleeping videos. This trolling of You Tube and Instagram for entertainment is somewhat foreign to me – I’m getting old – I suppose it’s the digital age version of flipping through magazines and looking at glossy pictures. But the digital age is not going away, as a matter of fact, it is rapidly reinventing itself at a pace that I can’t keep up with. Remember podcasts? Well that was SO 10 YEARS AGO.

As much as my mind is boggled by all the social media out there, I’d like to think my learning curve has been quite steep. I’m not a You-Tuber or Instagrammer, however Twitter (as a professional tool) makes sense to me. It feels more like streaming headlines to keep me in the loop. At a recent Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Conference I spent a full day in a Social Media Summit where I was amazed to see the extent to which various forms of social media have planted themselves firmly in the research and medical education worlds as a tool for information exchange. Conference goers shared slides, opinions, commentaries on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, some sessions were live-streamed, other sessions were live-Tweeted…yes, live-Tweeted…with such reach that an individual in the southern US was weighing in on topics and opinions being generated from a talk they weren’t even attending. I myself, a rather novice and slightly anti-social social media user, got caught up in the energy and tweeted points of interest and self-reflection in an effort to share with my academic and research followers. I also wanted to be as cool as all the other people who were so effortlessly and simultaneously soaking in information and Tweeting about it at the same time.

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Although the Tweeting and Instagramming activities in this particular context are likely more “social”, social media in general can serve as a very useful tool for what researchers call Knowledge Translation (knowledge dissemination, sharing, etc.). Podcasts and Tedx sessions are great sources for engaging and intellectual talks about a range of science and research topics. Want to know about a drug to slow down Parkinson’s disease? There’s a podcast for that.

Want to know about ethical issues in HIV research? There’s a Tedx talk for that

Social media such as You Tube can be an excellent resource for parents looking for information about a range of children’s health issues. The IWK’s Dr. Christine Chambers has had tremendous success with a You Tube video that has taken years of pediatric pain research and put it into a brief video designed to teach parents how to make needles less painful for their children.

In 142 characters or less, agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Institute for Health Research keep researchers informed about funding opportunities and the public informed about health research related topics of current relevance.

These are great, reputable sources for both health professionals and the lay person interested in hot topics related to health research in North America.

As curiosity driven beings, we are sponges for information. Social media in its various forms provides us access to a range of ground-breaking findings, trends, publications, videos and reports. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research reported that 24.1% of 485 physicians surveyed used social media daily to “scan or explore medical information”. Moreover 57.5% of those physicians saw social media as beneficial, engaging, and useful for acquiring current, high-quality information. . But with the sheer volume of information that’s out there, and the rapid fire speed with which we glance over that information, how can researchers and health care providers accurately assess what is “high quality information”?

In evidence-based settings (medicine, research) knowledge users engage in critical appraisal – an activity that involves a comprehensive assessment of various aspects of a research paper in order to weigh the overall pros and cons of that evidence. Criteria such as peer review, inclusion of detailed methodology, identification of limitation weigh heavily in the final assessment of overall merit. However in a digital age where knowledge is at our fingertips, there seems to be very little information about how we might critically appraise that information for validity and reliability. I can Google the most recent status of flu vaccine uptake, but is it correct?

Should scientific content distributed across social media as a form of knowledge exchange be subject to the same sort of critical appraisal as traditional forms of scholarly knowledge sharing? Journal publications are peer-reviewed. Conference presentations undergo a review process before accepted. However, as researchers we can Tweet our opinions about our (or others) research, Instagram a photo of a table or chart or You Tube a video of a lecture and there it is, out in the digital world to be consumed. And who’s to say any of this is accurate, reliable or valid? Can the retweet, the favorite and the like be considered a virtual form of peer review?

One side of the coin is that perhaps knowledge exchange on social media is nothing more than the new casual conversations around the proverbial water cooler. Brief snippets of information and videos can keep you up to date on the current issues in your research area.

The other side of the coin is that perhaps we should start considering critical appraisal tools – with either intuitive or formal processes – to apply to various forms of social media. Although I doubt very much that any good researcher would expect his or her audience to accept the “trust me” defense and accept a tweet, podcast or Instagram as gospel, I often wonder if the knowledge consumer doesn’t stop to assess the information. Even where links are provided to support posts with journal articles, charts and data, I would bet very few of us dig deeper when all we’re looking for is the digital version of a sound bite.

So where does this leave us as critical thinkers? I believe we should apply the same critical lens to knowledge that is disseminated through social media as we apply to traditional forms of knowledge dissemination. Perhaps the same rigor we apply to systematic critical appraisal is not required, but I would suggest the grain-of-salt approach. Is the source reputable? Does the source provide additional reputable links for more detailed information? Is the information based on evidence or opinion? These are just a few high level considerations.

There’s a lot of information out there and separating the good from the bad can be a cumbersome process. At least when things get overwhelming, there will always be cute-puppies-sleeping videos…guaranteed to be a valid and reliable source of stress relief.

~  Dr. Jill Hatchette


One thought on ““Did you see this video on You Tube?”

  1. Hi Jill – I like your comments! It strikes me that a couple of ways I often evaluate things also apply in the case of information shared via social media and other online means – as you say, what are the credentials of the person who is stating something (what are their qualifications to say the things they are saying, what are their assertions based on) but also, we need to “follow the money”. We need to investigate and understand the financial connections behind the statements of others in this knowledge-based economy.

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