Keeping up to date on the barrage of medical information available online can be daunting, and health-care professionals are now turning to social media to figure out how to make it easier.
Every Wednesday, as many as 70 health-minded Twitterers meet online to debate - in 140 characters or fewer - the best ways to use the web to get accurate information to those who want it, without overwhelming them with an unmanageable number of tweets or viral videos.
"There are a lot of people and organizations struggling with how to do that on social media, in health care in particular," said Colleen Young, who started the Healthcare Social Media Canada (#hcsmca) group last September.
Getting health-care professionals and the public talking will help organizations understand what kind of online content users find most valuable, explained Ms. Young, a freelance medical writer for cancer organizations and patients.
"There are very definite ways that they want to get public health messages."
Ms. Young said that patients are more interested in a two-way conversation with health providers. Rather than being bombarded by only links to a new anti-smoking campaign or research on healthy eating, users want to share their own news or opinions with health-care groups and hear back if they find it interesting.
"The organizations have to make a wholesale change of attitude and that is that they're not just pumping out information."
Canadian hospitals are increasingly interested in looking into expanding their social-media use beyond one-way education, said Ann Fuller, who is the director of communications at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
"As hospitals in Canada we have to sometimes do more and more with less and less. Is there a way for social media to fill that gap?"
Ms. Fuller said group conversations like #hcsmca can help hospitals who are investigating how online resources could supplement clinical visits or long-term care management for conditions like asthma.
"So that people can stay connected," she explained, "and by staying connected their clinical outcomes could improve."
Ms. Young said the more than 500 #hcsmca Twitter followers are from hospitals, patient advocacy groups and the health-care industry from across Canada. They share social media strategies and hear from participating health-care users about how they want to communicate with medical providers online.
She said contributors discuss topics like how to use social media to get health conversations started in rural areas or to organize support groups online.
Abisaac Saraga manages social media for the Edmonton-based Canadian Patient Safety Institute and has been taking part in #hcsmca Twitter chats since the beginning of 2011.
Through the weekly discussion Mr. Saraga met a manager of communications from Toronto's Scarborough General Hospital, who was working on getting more hospital staff to use social media. Mr. Saraga said their discussions gave him a better idea of how to get more employees involved at CPSI. He explained that the more health professionals online, the better and more abundant the information that's available to the public.
"It's probably doing more for the health-care institutions than the patients at this point because they have an opportunity to listen to what patients want rather than pumping out what they think they want," said Young.