The Intersection of Healthcare, Cancer and Twitter: It’s Here, Folks
I am an unabashed fan of The Simpsons and one of my favorite episodes is that in which Homer details all of the 188 jobs he held in the first 400 episodes. Myself, I have worked in the public relations agency world for three agencies, as a college professor, I’ve had my own company, worked for the federal government, for a Chinese behemoth that became the largest IPO in history and as a contractor for a federal agency. So yeah, I sometimes wake up feeling professionally like Homer Simpson.
My current job at the National Cancer Institute has brought me more job satisfaction than I think I’ve ever experienced. Most days, I get to go home with the feeling that, since I am in communications, I did something to help connect patients, caregivers, researchers, doctors, clinicians and others. Cancer rightfully scares the hell out of many people, and what I have experienced is that those who suffer from or care for those who have this terrible set of diseases crave is information.
While many people still get information about cancer from sources like their doctors, cancer.gov or 1-800-4-CANCER, increasingly, people are turning to social media for information, support and resources. Every day, I’ve tried to to do my best at helping to make people aware, on a large scale, of the cancer-related information available to them during my tenure at the NCI.
What I am proudest of though, is what started as a crazy idea and ended up being what Audun Utengen, of Symplur called “unprecendented.” I knew for some time that Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” would become a PBS documentary co-produced by Ken Burns and Barak Goodman. It was a three night, six hour very accurate portrayal of the book (March 30 – April 1, 2015), but one interwoven with compelling interviews, personal stories, triumph and tears.
My crazy idea
My whole train of thought began with what we could NOT do, and that was to miss the opportunity of a lifetime to capitalize on the fact that millions of Americans would be watching a program about the past and present of cancer research and treatment. Millions of people were going to be focused on cancer. As the nation’s engine that drives basic cancer research, we at NCI had to do something that would have an enormous and lasting impact on those impacted by cancer. But what?
Based upon the premise of marrying the “big screen/small screen” phenomenon for events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars (remember the Oreo cookie tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl power outage?), what if we could get people to watch the film, and cancer experts could simultaneously provide running commentary and information about cancer – as the facts or stories appeared on the film? In essence, what if we could live-tweet one of the most important online events about cancer – EVER? The hashtag, #CancerFilm had already been registered and was in use, and we were thinking big.
I knew that NCI’s lone voice was not going to be enough to have the impact we craved. Luckily, the National Cancer Institute has a vast network of cancer centers as well as an engaged group of advocates. So we reached out to them and said, “What if we did this – but on a really big scale?” Well, we were fortunate enough to live-tweet all three nights of Emperor with a group of 18 partners: cancer centers, advocates, clinicians and many, many more.
So what happened?
After a tremendous amount of planning, preparation, coordination, we had our plan in place. When one of many possible cancer topics were mentioned during all three nights of Emperor, the NCI, our 18 partners and others were ready to provide the information in the moment in which it was mentioned. For example, when the very popular topic of immunotherapy was mentioned, many experts provided links to additional resources in real-time.
But we still had the question: if we all got together and a threw party, would anyone show up? Would people engage in an online conversation about cancer on Twitter while a compelling documentary was airing (across all U.S. time zones, each night beginning at 9:00 pm ET)? With baited breath, each night I ran reports that were made possible by the Healthcare Hashtag Project, and based upon the tweets that I saw fly past on my Tweetdeck screen, I knew that we were on to something. And I hoped that it would be BIG.
NCI, our partners and thousands and thousands of other Twitter users did, in fact, live-tweet using the #CancerFilm hashtag, providing information about the past and present of cancer treatment, but we couldn’t stop there. So the day after the last night of the documentary, all of us in the partnership (and some new organizations and individuals) conducted a highly successful Twitter chat about what many believe is the future of cancer treatment: immunotherapy.
What I saw flying past my Tweetdeck screen during all three nights as well as the chat on the day after the last episode was people asked questions, engaging in dialogue, arguing and discussing. And most importantly, that was made possible by the “big screen/small screen” connection.
There are two sets of results that I count. The first one is quantitative. Our social media experiment resulted in:
- 443 million Twitter mentions in three and a half days;
- 56,565 tweets;
- 12,234 participants;
- All three nights and during the chat, our lead Twitter account, @theNCI, was the #1 influencer according to the Healthcare Hashtag Project;
- The NCI and our partners drove the discussion that resulted in one out of every four tweets (more than 120 million mentions); and
- People found value in the information we provided: @theNCI saw more than 32,000 engagements (favorites, shares, clicks, video views, etc), indicating that we really were giving people the cancer information that they wanted, when they wanted it.
While the numbers are big, and even if one supposes that, as according to Twitter, only 2-5% of all tweets are actually seen, that is still means that people saw and reacted to between 8.8 and 22.5 MILLION tweets.
What really mattered
While the numbers were beyond our expectations, what really mattered is what we could not measure, the qualitative part: somewhere, there was someone watching and tweeting who was battling cancer and craved information; somewhere, someone recognized that clinical trials can be a first option, not a last option; someone read about the tragedy and promise of the past and present of battling this terrible disease; and somewhere, someone realized that if they were nearing the sunset of their own battle with cancer, they learned about palliative care – and discovered that they had the right to choose how and where their cancer journey ended.
What prompted this blog post was an June 9 article in the highly respected Public Library of Science (PloS) blog by Sally James (‘Second Screen’ for Health Care Messaging: Looking for Lessons from #CancerFilm) in which others called the effort “unprecedented” and “an explosion of people talking about a disease.” In the PLoS post, Sally wrote:
“Media relations expert Greg Matthews believes the social media explosion of #cancerfilm will inspire others to attempt to re-create it. “Anyone who saw the impact that #cancerfilm had on the online health ecosystem is going to be building on that model – it was phenomenally successful.”
Those are wonderful words to read and the social media experiment, while a tremendous amount of work, collaboration and cooperation, was the most gratifying professional effort that I have ever undertaken. And if it inspires others to re-create it, all the better.
So even after some amazing numbers, I still tried to focus on what is most important: getting cancer-related information to those who need it most. I hit the “reset” button on my job every day. Innovation is needed because cancer doesn’t wait, so I don’t either.
Can we truly measure the most important impact, reaching people in a moment of need? No way. Did it happen? I am certain of it.
That’s why I love what I get to do every day.
P.S.: In case you have not read my disclaimer page on this site, my Twitter account nor any of the other places online where my words are littered, know that the views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of the National Cancer Institute nor Kelly Government Services.