In early November, the UK Department of Health (DH) launched a £2m nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the early signs and symptoms of dementia – this follows a pilot of the project in northern English regions that took place this spring.

The term “dementia” relates to progressive loss of cognitive ability in a previously well individual. Dementia has a number of causes, including Alzheimer’s Disease (the most common cause), stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

According to a report by InPharm, only 40% of dementia sufferers receive a diagnosis. Many more have diagnosis and treatment delayed, in some cases due to reluctance of family members to accept that their loved one is suffering from dementia. It is this sense of reluctance in family members that the DH campaign has sought to target with their television advertisement, which is also featured on YouTube. If family members understand that by encouraging their relative to consult with their HCP, early identification and treatment may be possible, it is possible that consultation and diagnosis rates will increase, and that outcomes will be improved.

An article in the Guardian described how the results of the DH’s pilot campaign were encouraging – people over 40 who saw or heard the advertisements were more likely to report that they would see a doctor if they experienced any of the symptoms described, or that they would encourage a close friend or relative to do so. They were also more likely to believe that early diagnosis can result in better outcomes

Dementia awareness online

In addition to the television campaign, the DH has also produced leaflets, and has a dementia strategy section on its website, where links to other resources, such as reports and patient groups can be found.

Dementia generally, and Alzheimer’s Disease specifically are well represented in the online space. The NHS choices website has a section dedicated to dementia, which is optimised for sharing and includes practical tips, as well as real life stories, and Alzheimer’s Disease patient groups have associated Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and discussion forums – the UK Alzheimer’s Society has a sophisticated Facebook page with 19,303 “Likes”.

Figure 1: UK Alzheimer's Disease Society Facebook Page

Raising awareness online

For organisations wishing to raise disease awareness, digital methods of interaction are an important part of the overall approach. Not only is it possible to raise the profile of a medical condition through a website or Facebook page, online methods provide opportunities for true engagement with the public, or with the patient community, and such opportunities are much more difficult – or even impossible –  to seek offline. For example, a real time “chat” between a patient advisory group and a group of sufferers would be difficult to coordinate offline if the individuals were in different geographical locations (a teleconference would be the most likely option). However, such interactions can be simple and instant with digital media such as Twitter, or internet-enabled technologies such as Skype.

There are a number of points that must be taken into account when designing an awareness-raising campaign with a digital component.

Firstly, the aim of the awareness raising campaign should be clearly articulated. The DH campaign was focused on educating relatives of elderly people to be alert for signs and symptoms of dementia, and to take prompt action if these are noticed – namely, through encouraging consultation with a healthcare professional. For other disease areas, the goal may be different.

It is also important to consider the target audience. In the case of dementia, patients are not the main target – whilst not all patients are severely affected, most are elderly and may not be comfortable with using a computer to access information about their condition, or to connect with others in similar situations. Carers and family members are the most likely users of online resources for dementia, and this is reflected in the discussions on dementia forums (the majority of posts are from carers), and in the DH’s approach to raising awareness. However, as the “next generation” of people to be affected by dementia are likely to have used computers for much of their professional lives, it is possible that in the future an increase in sufferers accessing information online will be seen; such a pattern is likely for other disease areas, too.

Once the overall aim and the target audience have been established, the audience’s motivations for engaging with digital and social media should be explored. In general , the motivations for engaging with health-related social media can be summarised as Cause, Collaboration, Content, Community, Credibility, Conversation and Competition. Understanding the audience’s likely motivations can help with tailoring the individual social media assets.

Online disease awareness raising initiatives are likely to come as part of a larger drive to raise awareness, and it is therefore important to define an over-arching strategy that covers all modes of communication, rather than simply “adding on” the digital component. Different geographical locations may require a different mix of communication methods – for example, many developing countries have low levels of broadband penetration, but extremely high mobile penetration levels. Finally, digital methods of raising awareness must not be considered to be cost-saving options. Whilst digital campaigns do not require costly printing or leaflet distribution and can work out as bringing better value for money, they may require website design, community management and the purchase of expert advice.

Conclusion

Raising public awareness of a medical condition, its symptoms and treatment options can be an important part of improving outcomes, particularly for disease areas with an associated stigma or fear. Digital methods may be a core part of an awareness raising approach, with the added benefit of providing quick and easy real-time engagement, and potentially providing a good level of ROI. However, it is important to establish a strategy and goals for the awareness campaign, and to determine the role that should be played by digital media.