If you work in a public health agency, the next time you are trying to make a case for using social media, or even more radical, developing open source wikis for your agency or social marketing program, be sure you have a copy of this article from the LA Times in hand. Many administrators in these agencies are physicians, and often epidemiologists, by training. While they might appreciate the value of a good sound bite, they often have a difficult time relating to social marketing, and the notion of 'losing control' over communications with social media is frightening (they won't say that, but it is!).
The article describes ProMED, a free, open source and access website that is the Wikipedia of disease surveillance.
In 2003, ProMED was first to report the disease that turned out to be severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Though China initially tried to squelch news of the mysterious outbreak, Madoff says, ProMED tracked the spread of the disease. When ProMED fans at a Toronto hospital began seeing symptoms similar to what they were reading on-line, they isolated suspect patients and took other steps now credited with having limited its spread.
The service also won fans in October 2001 during the anthrax letter attacks that killed five, infected 17 and put more than 20,000 frightened Americans on antibiotics. D.A. Henderson, the scientist who led the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox and who was then a key advisor to the secretary of Health and Human Services, said CNN and ProMED had been the government's most reliable sources of information.
Quite a track record and high praise for an open source approach to knowledge development and management, and maybe something that will resonate with those managers and colleagues who still think the laboratory, RCTs and tortured clearance procedures are the path to truth and wisdom. You might also be able to to open them up to the idea that social media and open source projects lead to a heightened ability to sense and respond to changes in the real world rather than having less control it.
There are other internet systems for disease outbreaks available, such as Global Public Health Intelligence Network, which does real-time monitoring of media in seven languages. However, it only monitors news media outlets and lacks a complete open source component (where anyone can contribute to it at any time). You can also intrigue your epidemiologist colleagues with the blue sky discussion of INSTEDD, the International System for Total Early Disease Detection, at Lunch Over IP and the 'what ifs?' of adding human inputs to these more automated systems. Then maybe they'd start to get it.
Now, about that marketing idea we have...