Talking Health Online

On 21 October 2021, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science hosted a webinar entitled, “Talking Health Online: Why it matters and what linguistics can contribute”, as part of a series of events organised by the International Consortium for Communication in Health Care (IC4CH). The IC4CH is an initiative that brings together language and communication researchers and health care practitioners at an international level, to translate the findings of interdisciplinary research to improve healthcare practice. The Consortium includes members from the Australian National University, Nanyang Technological University, Lancaster University, University College London (UCL), the University of Hong Kong and Queensland University of Technology. Like the Consortium, this webinar event brought together colleagues from around the world, with speakers from Lancaster University, UCL and Nanyang Technological University.

The webinar centred on online forms of health communication, particularly online forums, and featured a range of perspectives from scholars at different career stages. Delivered as a conversation between our chair, Professor Tony McEnery, and our respective speakers, attendees had the opportunity to hear about a range of projects involving linguistic analyses of health care communication.

The first of our speakers, Prof Joanna Zakrzewska, is a practicing consultant trained in oral medicine and an honorary professor at UCL. Joanna specialises in a condition called trigeminal neuralgia, a severe pain condition affecting the face, and talked about her work with the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association establishing various support services, including an online forum. Working with Professor Elena Semino, Joanna and her team were able to get a clearer understanding of the types of interactions that were taking place on the forum and identify areas where there was a need for input from medical professionals. Subsequently, the forum has functioned as a source of quality information regarding trigeminal neuralgia, as well as a space for users to find empathy and compassion among peers.

Joanna’s case study indicated what kinds of insights are afforded by linguistic analysis and, in particular, corpus linguistics. Our next speaker, Dr Tara Coltman-Patel, offered further details on what linguistics can contribute and what is involved in corpus linguistic analysis. Tara is a Senior Research Associate in CASS, working principally on the Quo Vadis (Questioning Vaccination Discourse) project, which involves investigating social media, parliamentary discourse and news media, alongside forum interactions. Tara emphasised the evidence-based approach that computational analyses of large datasets affords and, in detailing some of the procedures involved in corpus analysis, demonstrated how researchers can uncover linguistic strategies used for rhetorical effect in discussions around health issues such as vaccination.

Next to speak was Professor Elena Semino, Director of CASS, who offered further details on the analytical approach used to investigate the trigeminal neuralgia support forum. Elena has strong research expertise in studying metaphor and was also able to provide examples of her work developing the Metaphor Menu for people living with cancer. Responding to long-standing debates about the impacts of conceptualising experiences of cancer as, for example a ‘battle’ or a ‘journey’, Elena’s research team found that people respond differently to such metaphors: that while one person can find the idea of preparing for ‘battle’ empowering, this framing can be highly detrimental to those who feel it can be a battle lost. The Metaphor Menu is a resource, in the form of a leaflet and postcards, that presents patients and practitioners with a range of metaphors used by patients to describe their experiences with cancer and is recommended by Cancer Research UK. As with a restaurant menu, patients have the opportunity to adopt the framing of their choosing, or indeed create new ‘recipes’, that help them to view their situation in more empowering ways.

The conversation continued with a focus on the patient experience, with questions directed towards Dr Gavin Brookes, a Research Fellow in CASS who offered some reflections on his work exploring Patient Feedback provided to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). In this work, Gavin was able to investigate the combination of quantitative metrics (feedback scores) and qualitative comments (free text responses). One of the challenges of the study was establishing what type of respondents were providing feedback, with very little information about personal characteristics such as age, gender, where they were from etc. The solutions developed by Gavin and his collaborators in extracting such information from the data they had available also generated insights into how respondents would disclose personal characteristics as an argumentative strategy. Furthermore, Gavin recounted some of the observations they were able to provide to the NHS, to better understand the feedback form itself and the nature of the responses they received.

Our final speaker was Professor May O. Lwin, Chair and President’s Chair Professor of Communication Studies at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang University. One of the many areas of research May has been involved in is the study of public communications during epidemics. May recounted some of the observations she and her team have made of conversations on Twitter, in relation to Covid-19. Using a technique called sentiment analysis, May was able to track references to emotional states and assess the trajectories of various communities around the world as the pandemic developed. May told us how fear and then anger were dominant emotions expressed on Twitter, but that there is also evidence for expressions of hope and gratitude as members of those communities look to support each other. May’s work demonstrated the influence that public communications from the government had on the overriding sentiment of conversations on the topic, and so it is important to think about the language used in those announcements and how they shape the public mood.

Our speakers then took questions from the audience, providing a view of what is involved in accessing and securing online forms of health communication data, in collaborating with practitioners and in working with large and diverse datasets. This part of the discussion again reiterated the value of interdisciplinary work and, in fostering that interdisciplinarity, working to make your research accessible and finding common ground. In this respect, the webinar echoed one of the core values of the International Consortium for Communication in Health Care: bridging the divide between academic and practitioner worlds based on a shared commitment to understanding and improving health communication.

You can watch the video here: Video

You can view the transcript here: Transcript