I’m in Toronto today at the Getting to Uptake conference, convened by Sick Kids Hospital. The conference focuses on how social media can foster practice change in the arena of pediatric mental health by connecting practitioners with patients and with one another. In the desperate hope that I could get Sick Kids to return my tonsils and adenoids, I offered the conference an overview of social media and how it’s being used in the health field.

I’ve posted the slides of my presentation to SlideShare, but since I subscribe to the less text/more pictures school of PowerPoint, I’ve written up some notes summarizing my presentation and linking to the examples I shared.

For social media to support practice change, practitioners need to see its value to their work and their patients. I suggested that one way to understand the impact of social media is through its relationship to social capital. Social capital, understood as the density of relationships and trust within a community, is a key determinant of health. Individuals are happier and healthier in communities with high levels of social capital, and high social capital communities have stronger economies and more stable political systems.

Social media can support social capital when it’s harnessed to building relationships both on- and offline. If we use social media in a thoughtful way, intentionally harnessed to the fostering of social capital, it can promote both individual and community health.

What is social media?

Social media can be defined in terms of two crucial and related shifts:

  1. The shift from “message push” communication towards conversational communication. In “message push” communications, a message is delivered from one (individual or institutional) author to an audience — as per conference speeches, broadcast TV/radio, print media and web 1.0 sites. Social media consists of sites and communities where people engage in conversation instead of pushing a message or passively absorbing one.
  2. The shift from single author sites that reflect the knowledge and views of a single author or organization, towards multi-author sites in which content is generated by the users.

Video: The Machine is Us/ing Us (not shown but highly recommended):

A great overview of the technological innovation that gave birth to social media, and its implications for our work, world and relationships.


Blogs, Flickr, YouTube, podcasts: these are words that can inspire anxiety about the novelty of what feels like a whole new form of communication. But all of these are just facets of storytelling. If you’ve ever sat around a dinner table and told your family or friends about your day, you already know how to do storytelling. Now it’s just a matter of applying your natural storytelling capacity to the world of social media.

Here are some great examples of online storytelling for health:

  • Share Your Story is an online community for parents of premature or disabled infants, created by the March of Dimes. It provides a way for families to share news and get support during a difficult and often isolated time, and their moving stories have inspired greater awareness of birth defects and how to prevent them.
  • When Shari Kurzrok got a liver transplant, she used a blog to tell the story of her ordeal and raise awareness around organ donation.
  • The St. Louis Children’s Hospital has created a YouTube channel to share videos that tell the story of the hospital’s work through the personal voices of patients and their families.


We humans are social creatures: we naturally reach out to connect with others. The huge and growing crop of social networks, from Facebook to LinkedIn, are just new ways of connecting. These online connections can support social capital by creating new relationships of trust. Here are a few examples of how people are connecting online to support individual and community health:

  • Tyze is a personal support networking platform that we created for the PLAN Institute. For twenty years, PLAN has been a world leader in creating personal support networks for vulnerable adults so that they have the relationships and support that enable them to lead a meaningful life and make their own contribution to the world. Tyze translates that support model to the web by creating personal support networks in which a small group of people can share stories, take responsibility for tasks and schedule their activities as a group.
  • The BC Children’s Hospital Foundation has launched the Campaign for BC Kids to raise money for significant capital investments in the hospital and in providing high-quality pediatric care across the province. We’ve helped BCCHF take their Be a Superhero! campaign to Facebook with a widget and customizable video, building relationships with a new generation of supporters and donors.
  • LinkedIn connects professionals in a wide range of fields so that they can expand their network of colleagues and share ideas or information. Groups like the Pediatric Health Information Technology Community enable collaboration on specific topics.

Knowledge Management

Social media can help foster knowledge creation and knowledge management with tools and communities that make it easier to share knowledge. When people connect and collaborate online, that collaboration not only serves the instrumental goal of creating and sharing knowledge, but the process of collaboration itself builds trust and relationships among collaborators. Here are a few examples:

  • Delicious is a social bookmarking service that builds shared knowledge from the routine task of storing bookmarks for useful websites. Instead of storing a bookmark in your browser — where you may have trouble finding the folder you put it in, or find yourself unable to access a link because you’re using a different computer — you store your bookmarks on the web, labeling each bookmark with every keyword (“tag”) that might help you retrieve it later. Find new colleagues in child mental health by noticing who else is storing bookmarks with similar tags, or designate a tag (e.g. “uptakeTO”) that you and your colleagues will use to store bookmarks that you’ll all find useful. You can learn how to get started here.
  • Wikipedia is the best-known example of a wiki, which is a web site that can be collaboratively edited by many people. On Wikipedia, anyone can edit any article, but  it’s also possible to set up a wiki which is accessible to a smaller number of people, or where anyone can see it but only some people can edit it. For example, you could create a health resource where only clinicians can edit articles, but patients can still read them.
  • Kaboom! takes a more structured approach to knowledge sharing, by inviting parents to contribute to its database of playground locations and reviews.

More examples of social media with impact

In the introduction to my presentation and the ensuing panel, I covered a few other examples of social media projects that have had a concrete impact:

  • Katrina PeopleFinder was a volunteer-led effort to help hurricane survivors reunite with their family members, and to ensure that people could find information about the location and status of their family and friends. I kicked off my presentation with this example, which remains one of the outstanding examples of social media that had a concrete impact on the well-being of individuals and communities.
  • Social Actions is the service that lets bloggers and websites embed links to relevant volunteer and action opportunities.
  • The DailyKos ACLU wiki was the site that let volunteers assist in processing the high volume of data that the US government released on Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

So far, no word on whether my presentation has earned me the return of my deprecated body parts. If anyone at Sick Kids has my tonsils or adenoids in a jar of formaldehyde, I’ll settle for you posting some shots to Flickr.