H1N1 Flu Partner Webcasts

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WI DHS) held weekly H1N1 briefings via live and on-demand webcasts to increase viewers, conserve resources, and communicate increasingly complex data.

During the fall of 2009, the department needed to communicate with multiple partners about issues related to rising numbers of H1N1 cases. Traditional communication strategies via a bridge phone line were not suited to the situation, because participants had only one opportunity to receive the information and costs to maintain a bridge line were not feasible. Given how many calls were necessary to brief partners on the situation, the health department spent $30,000 on bridge phone communications during the first month of H1N1 briefings.

WI DHS needed an alternative to communicating with partners via phone, especially since information needed to be conveyed frequently and to a large number of stakeholders. The department decided to use webcasting as a way to achieve these goals. WI DHS had used webcasts to communicate timely information to healthcare systems and hospitals during a multistate outbreak of monkeypox in 2003. The first H1N1 Flu Partner Update webcast was held July 10, 2009, and webcasts are ongoing as of the time of this writing.

Several advantages to using webcasting have included the ability to increase the number of people who are able to access the presentation through closed-captioning and on-demand, Web-based viewing. The H1N1 webcasts have reached 500-1,000 people per week, and 7,000 people viewed the on-demand archived version of a webcast during a two-week period in fall 2009. As a result of using this accessible and available communication method, Wisconsin was able to provide information to all of its 92 public health departments and 11 Tribes, as well as health systems, hospitals, and first responders.

WI DHS partnered with Sonic Foundry, a webcasting and knowledge management company, to deliver weekly H1N1 webcasts on its web-based platform. Use of the platform has helped the department conserve costs, because the department only had to invest in hosting and equipment for an unlimited number of webcasts that can be broadcast to as many users as possible. Equipment consists of a box capable of combining video, audio, and PowerPoint presentations into a user-friendly format. Barriers to creating and viewing the webcasts have mainly included issues with users and presenters, rather than technological errors. For instance, many potential users are part of agencies that block video due to security considerations or lack adequate bandwidth to support viewing the webcasts. Additionally, presenters need to be educated ahead of time about suitable dress (e.g., solid colors) and body language for appearing on camera.

WI DHS' switch from phone to webcast for providing necessary updates to its partners across the state was beneficial in several ways. First, WI DHS was able to provide more detailed and complex information about the H1N1 situation, because they were able to include graphs and maps of trends in disease spread and vaccine uptake in their presentations. Second, local health departments, healthcare systems, hospitals, first responders, and other partners are receiving the same information from the state health department at roughly the same time, allowing them to base their efforts on the most current news. These partners also may view the presentation online after the live webcast. Third, the partnership with Sonic Foundry and the use of its technology meant that staff in charge of production and presentation could be mobile, rather than being confined to a studio. Fourth, WI DHS was able to save money that would otherwise have been spent quickly on costly conference calls. Last, the introduction of webcasting as a viable communications tool meant that public health built strong partnerships between IT professionals, communications staff, and local subject matter experts.

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