Whisky and wine bottle

This year’s HSJ100 highlighted the health sector’s most influential Twitter users and generated plenty of online debate, but leaders need to better use the platform to promote public health in party season, says Dean Royles

Dean Royles director, NHS Employers, and chair of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development

The recent HSJ100 2012 list of the most influential people in health as usual generated lots of interest on Twitter. The dominance of men in the top 20 − indeed, the dominance of Davids in the top 10! − people missing from the list, the definition of influence and how different the list will look next year with the establishment of clincial commissiong groups all had people tweeting.

However, the comment that caught my eye was a reference from a tweeter to a lack of public health leaders on the list − surely a mistake? Surely a misunderstanding? l’ve grown up in the NHS and the one thing I’ve always been told is that we all have a public health role. So why the reference? Why the concern?

‘As people working in health and social care, should we try to avoid the normalisation and promotion of alcohol on Twitter?’

Now I’m taking my observations here from Twitter, so the question I ask is this: how do those of us on the network exercise our thinking and leadership on public health through social media?

Reflection of society

I did a quick bit of research.[1] I couldn’t find anyone I follow who admits to smoking. People never admit to a smoking break or a “well earned” fag after work, or talk about trips abroad to buy their supply of duty free cigarettes. Perhaps this absence of chat about smoking sounds promising? A good public health example?

But what about alcohol? Surely one of the major, if not the biggest, public health issue in the NHS at present, as the statistics suggest:

  • One in six admissions is said to be alcohol related.
  • It costs the NHS £2.7 billion a year.
  • It has implications for violence, abuse and sexual abuse.

Pretty serious stuff, I know. Now look at your followers and the people you follow. You will find loads of biographies that highlight a penchant for “fine wine” or “pubs and real ale”, some that refer to occasional drunkenness and maybe even talk of occasional sobriety.

You’ll also see plenty of tweets highlighting overindulgence and alcohol being used as an aid to sleep, to forget and to relieve stress after a busy day, plus the odd nightcap. I guess its no surprise.

Social media should be a reflection of society and drinking is, after all, a social event. My sense is that Twitter is a pretty accurate reflection of our social attitudes. Please realise I’m not judging, I hope I’m not preaching, and I am guilty as charged.

Setting an example

But as people working in health and social care, should we try to lead and avoid the normalisation and promotion of alcohol on Twitter? Why not:

  • tweet more about the harm alcohol causes;
  • commit to the weekly limits and units;
  • remove alcohol references from biographies;
  • avoid tweets about use of alcohol;
  • retweet public health information and guidance;
  • and if you plan an alcohol-free January, tweet about it.

There, I got it off my chest. The very fact that it is so difficult to write about alcohol without wanting to offend or feel like a killjoy probably also says something about the role of drinking in our society.

My suggestions for behaviour Twitter aren’t meant to be exhaustive. Just some early morning thoughts, so feel free to share ideas below and perhaps next year the HSJ100 will be full of public health leaders.

Drink in moderation and have a very enjoyable Christmas!

[1] Not scientific.

Dean Royles is director at NHS Employers