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How Social Media Created A Hand Hygiene Revolution

Jason Tetro
September 24, 2013

Healthcare social media


Hand hygiene has become very social with upwards of a hundred tweets per hour; a few new videos daily; at least one story in the mainstream news weekly; and several blogs per month.  So how did social media create a hand hygiene revolution? 


Back in October of 2005, at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, a new campaign was launched to help improve the lives of patients and reduce the risks of infection.  The Global Patient Safety Challenge was aimed at fighting the spread of healthcare associated infections highlighted by the slogan, “Clean Care is Safer Care”.  The aim was clear enough:  countries from around the world would pledge their support to address HAI’s and find ways to promote hand hygiene.  The effort was designed to ensure governments would introduce system-wide interventions; there was little indication that this effort would be noticed by the general public.  Though no one at the time knew it, this moment started what was to be a revolution in social media advocacy to improve health worldwide.  



Within two years, the relative ease of access to information on the internet led to an increase in the potential audience.  No longer were campaigns such as the Canadian Patient Safety Institute’s “STOP! Clean Your Hands” available only to health care workers, but also to the public.  The first indications came through an increase of handwashing videos on YouTube.  Soon, there were dozens of videos, all aiming to increase awareness and action.  In 2007, the American Journal of Infection Control took notice of this trend and published an extensive review of the need for hand hygiene in the home and community.  While health care was a focus for governments and NGOs, there needed to be an equal amount of attention paid to every other setting.  The New York Times took hold of this story and ran an article that led to a change in the public mindset – and the goals of advocates.  


About the same time as the articles were published, the social media world grasped hold of a new social media tool, Twitter.  The technological gurus loved the concept of what was then known as microblogging as it had the potential to influence hundreds if not thousands of people instantly.  There was also a means to keep up with a particular topic by simply using the number sign, #, better known as a hashtag.  By following a particular hashtag, one could keep up on all the information being shared by other twitter users worldwide.  It became a staple of communication and allowed for the mass sharing of hand hygiene information, via an assortment of tags, including #handwashing and #handhygiene


The amplification of the message was unexpected considering hand hygiene was considered to be of little importance to the public.  Yet in 2010, the use of these two terms – either hashed or not – was incredible with thousands of tweets per day mentioning them.  What was even more fascinating was that the majority of contributors were not advocates for patient safety.  They were members of the public who had a message to share with the rest of the world.  There was little doubt to anyone searching out dialogue on keeping hands clean that there was a global concern. 


By 2011, the WHO had taken notice and adopted #handhygiene and other hashtags to share valuable information as well as seek out interactions.  Though the goals of 2005 were still being sought, it was clear that there was an even greater audience hungry for the values of hand hygiene.  Other hygiene groups and institutions also turned to the hashtag to share information and links with the public.  This in turn led to an explosion of resources on the web from videos to music to gaming. 



What started out a mere 8 years ago as an attempt to gain governmental attention has since turned into worldwide advocacy for improving health and hygiene.  While those who worked diligently to increase the message to politicians, policymakers, healthcare leaders and front line staff can hold their heads high, there must also be accolades for those who took on social media to inform the rest of the population.  Without them, hand hygiene would have never reached the masses and kept the momentum alive.  


To them and to you reading this article I say, “Please, take a bow.”  


Please view these simple tips to get started with social media in healthcare and become part of the conversation.  For the more advanced healthcare social media users, please see the Ted Talk video entitled, "What if Dr. House was on Twitter?"


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