Social Media Tools Aid Public Health Officials

Dr. Raina M. Merchant, an emergency physician and assistant professor at the Pearlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed her patients were becoming far more social media savvy than the health care system they were being treated in.

Photo by Ian Barker via Flickr

She told Kaiser Health News that after reviewing news stories on the use of social media during disasters and seeing her patients turn to Twitter and Facebook for guidance on health issues, “it made a lot of sense to think about how to use these tools before the moment of need.”  Merchant asked,  “Are there lessons to be learned from how people are using Facebook and Twitter and other sites that would allow them to be more prepared?” In a recent paper publish in the New England Journal of Medicine, Mechant and her colleagues write that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are playing a more vital role in the public health care system and emergency preparedness. The perspective piece reports that social media sites “provide opportunities for engaging citizens in public health efforts by both ‘pushing’ information to the public and ‘pulling’ information from bystanders.”

Organizations such as FEMA,  the Red Cross and HHS are looking to social media as a way to prepare for emergency and disasters. The NEJM paper highlights recent disasters and public health crises where social media played a crucial role. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, locals and public health care workers used an open-source Web platform called “Ushahidi” to connect health care providers lacking supplies with those who had them.  In 2009 during the H1N1 influenza epidemic, HHS broadcast a “Mommycast” on YouTube and on iTunes that provided information and prevention tips to one million viewers.

Merchant, who also works as a policy scientist at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under HHS, says it’s important to look at the ways patients and providers share information, because social media “can show us how we, as a health care community, can be more responsive to patients.” Still, the need for accuracy is a big challenge in health care information gleaned from social media. “If we want our patients to get reliable information about health on these outlets,” said Dr. Merchant, “then we [in health care] need to understand how information is transferred and rapidly provide information that’s accurate.”

Every week, Kaiser Health News reporter Shefali S. Kulkarni compiles a selection of recently released health policy studies and briefs.  Read more in the Daily Health Report.