How US Health Care Leaders are Responding to COVID-19 on Social Media

Right now, people everywhere are using social media to cope with isolation (i.e., #stayathome). Overall, the pace of news related to COVID-19 has become so rapid that social media feeds seem the only way to keep up with an ever-evolving reality. As a result, these platforms are so inundated with information, it can be difficult to distinguish misinformation or breakthrough the noise to connect with one another.

Now, more than ever, it is critical for health care leaders to communicate in the most effective ways.

Using MDigitalLife – W2O’s integrated online and offline health care data platform – we zoomed in, filtering more than 124M posts on Twitter related to COVID-19 or coronavirus from January 1 to March 17, 2020 for 330K posts from physicians, advocacy groups, and industry players. We then used our audience map to analyze the specific specialties, geographies, disease areas, and company types who engaged – and, ultimately, tied it all back to the “WHEN,” in an effort to understand the “SO WHAT.”

In a global health crisis that is evolving and advancing at an exponential rate, there is much to learn from the thought leaders and influencers who are engaging in the discussion. Understanding how physicians and advocacy groups are stepping up as leaders in the dialogue; how health care professionals and companies can be more effective in addressing the information and support needs of patient communities; and, what information health care stakeholders need and expect from biopharma and pharmaceutical companies to help them during this time.

Here are nine insights we found from our data:

1. May the real coronavirus expert please stand up? Abundance of expert voices blur out the real-time facts.

Physicians and advocacy groups are using social media to call on their peers, media, and health care leaders to share their perspective on the evolving situation while caveating that they are not coronavirus experts (so that too much stock isn’t placed in an opinion from a non-expert that could quickly become outdated).

One of the first coronavirus tweets (January 2020) from a US physician, a professor of emergency medicine at a major research hospital, said: “Good news is no documented person-to-person spread, and no health care worker cases.”

As another physician put it: “Lots of misinformation about #coronavirus. What can we do? First, if you’re a general #globalhealth person, make it clear to your followers that this doesn’t make you a #coronavirus expert! I’ll start. I don’t know much about this disease.”

2. Infectious disease and emergency medicine experts are not the only one’s engaging – from cardiologists to oncologists, pediatricians and dermatologists – specialists are working to understand the impact.

There are three common questions that the health care community is asking – and certain specialties are more engaged because questions 1 and 2 are especially relevant to their patients.

    • Q1: How do we deliver treatments, with a reduced workforce, through the increased use of virtual visits and by postponing elective procedures?
    • Q2: What risks to our patients can we mitigate by reducing clinic visits? How do we manage the increased risk for severe illness for patients with kidney disease, cancer, as well as immunosuppressed patients?
    • Q3: Should we delay or change certain treatments? How should this be informed based on safety and toxicity data?

In the last 72 hours, conversation has started to emerge around a fourth question: How do we treat a patient with confirmed COVID-19?

3. Community physicians are serving a critical role in effectively sharing hyper-local information.

Initial conversations were focused in “first case” cities or cities with a large research hospital or center of excellence. However, as more communities are affected by outbreaks, physicians are participating at higher levels, primarily focused on overcapacity issues that already exist within their local health systems. These community doctors are also sharing expert perspectives on the response to the crisis from mayors and governors.

4. The health care community is seeking a more open source and transparent flow of information, which continues to increase as we learn more.

In late January, physicians started using social media to demand free access to research related to coronavirus. Journals responded. Seventy organizations and medical journals including New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet made all content free.

“An important thread: access to the latest and best scientific data needs to be open access during an epidemic outbreak such as #nCoV2019 or #Ebola. May warrant alternative ways of $ rewarding them, but in short run, priority needs to be on protecting human life.”

“I see some extremely important #nCov2019 research studies are behind firewalls at scientific journals. Just tried, e.g., to pull one off a Wiley journal today, Elsevier yesterday. IT IS IMMORAL in an epidemic to hide science behind paywalls. Period.”

5. Advocacy groups have been cautious to engage to-date, and although certain disease areas fall outside of the norm, most advocacy organizations have acted as amplifiers of content from public health institutions.

Sixty-two percent of advocacy posts on twitter are retweets, the majority of which are shares of content from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This may change in response to evolving needs for patient communities in the coming weeks. Notably, over the past week, there has been a shift among advocacy groups whose constituents are most at risk, with many creating or consolidating “verified” content and materials with guidelines for non-symptomatic patients on COVID-19. 

6. It’s important not to dilute the conversation with unnecessary or unhelpful comparisons.

Health care leaders may have done more harm than good by using COVID-19 as an opportunity to address anti-vaxxers and make comparisons to the flu in the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Recently physicians have hypothesized: “Please stop comparing #2019nCoV with influenza. Not equivalent – at all. You might as well remind people to stop smoking to save more lives than the coronavirus will take.”

7. Online conversation among industry analysts and investors is still very much in the moment versus thinking about longer-term impact.

To date, the online discussion has been largely focused on pharmaceutical companies and the status or starting of coronavirus vaccine clinical trials. Companies with the most mentions related to coronavirus are (in descending order): Gilead, Moderna, J&J, Sanofi, and Regeneron. There will be more information forthcoming on how the largest health care brands are maintaining relevancy with key stakeholders in an upcoming report scheduled to be released tomorrow.

8. Physicians and advocacy groups are increasingly engaging in a politicized dialogue, and many health care leaders worry about the impact on the scientific dialogue around pandemics.

Continuing to track this dialogue will be critical for health care leaders to understand how to add value to these conversations. For example, discussion around potential economic impact and health care access is likely to drive increased focus on patient access programs.

“There is also a growing partisan divide over how Americans interpret scientific expertise and health policy, leaving decisions about public health vulnerable to the kind of partisan squabbling you hear on cable news every night.”

“As #coronavirus spreads, political support is key but politicization of scientific decisions is dangerous. In @CFR_org @ThinkGlobalHlth I outline past inspiring collaboration and potential for unity against humanity’s common enemy: dangerous microbes.”

9. This is a moment to be inclusive as a health care community.

In response to gratitude expressed toward health care professionals, many physicians and advocacy groups aim to highlight the broader community of health care workers, such as janitors, hospital employees, and everyone who continues to work to address this disease every day.

This report was powered by W2O Analytics & Insights Team. Authors: Meredith Owen, Kelly Moulds, Garrett Bond, Daniel Steffen + the W2O Coronavirus Core Team.

(Note: This report focuses on US-insights. W2O will be sharing regional insights on the online conversation globally throughout March in April.)

W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage

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