Over on Symplur.com, Dr. Michael Katz talks about connected health care. In this blog post, Hashtags in Cancer Care: Embedding Meaning in Digital Health, he proposes a more formal set (“ontology”) of hashtags for cancer information. While hashtags have traditionally been a means of spontaneously organizing Twitter tweets, I think Dr. Katz’s idea has a lot of merit. Let me explain why I think this.
Dr. Katz points out that many of his patients are reluctant to search the internet for information about cancer because they can’t trust much of the information they find. What they want, I think, is more expert guidance on what to read. One way patients do this is to “follow” their doctor and other respected healthcare providers on social media sites to “hear” what they have to say and recommend. Very often a doctor may tweet or post on Facebook a link to an article that they find worthwhile, and their patients want to read the same.
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Since hashtags are a way of organizing things on social media, it makes sense to try to organize posts about cancer under the #cancer hashtag. But that is to broad of a tag, since there are many types of cancers. Left to grow organically, hashtags for cancer might lead to more confusion and less access to content. For example, how to hashtag a tweet about breast cancer? #breastcancer takes up to many precious characters. #bc really isn’t descriptive. #brstc maybe. #brcncr maybe. But when each person is left to come up with something that makes sense, we are left with thirty different tags and a loss of organization.
So Dr. Katz has proposed a “structured system” for cancer hashtags that allow tweets to be organized in a commonly understood and accepted fashion. While it may take some time to learn the ontology, it should make it easier to find information by being able to look at well known hashtags. For example, if you are interested only in breast cancer, you could look for content under the hashtag #bcsm and not have to wade through the thousands of other tweets.
Dr. Katz recognizes that a top down approach to hashtags doesn’t usually work. But I think this effort is a worthy one. Social media can easily get out of control and then people will be back to the point of having to search blindly for content. Providing this structure and leadership to our social networks is important to the people who want expert guidance to information on the internet. Over time, these hashtags can be tweaked where needed, but it provides us with a great starting point.