Health messages told via a little birdie

By John Connole
Thursday, 31 January, 2013

A new study by researchers from the University of Sydney has found that social media networks such as Twitter, have a strong potential for not only widely disseminating public health messages, but for directly engaging with specific target stakeholders; yet the most respected sources of public health information are among the least active in promoting their messages.
The research, by Head of Discipline and Chair of Health Informatics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Robert Steele and PhD candidate Dan Dumbrell, is part of Professor Steele’s broader research programs investigating the impacts of emerging technologies on health and health care.
Prof Steele says using new communications technologies to allow people to directly receive relevant and up-to-the-minute public health information could benefit the health of millions and change the paradigm of public health information dissemination.
He says that while most public health information is sought through online search engines, it has previously been found that relevant public health documents are not always successfully located and disseminated due to users’ search methods.
“Traditional online methods of public health information dissemination, such as search engines, have a ‘pull’ characteristic which relies on consumers actively searching to find the right information.
“Twitter has a distinct and potentially powerful ‘push’ characteristic in that it is members of the public who distribute public health information by forwarding messages from public health organisations to followers who have identified themselves as interested individuals.”
According to Professor Steele, this provides a new way for public health organisations to both engage more directly with the public and leverage individuals’ networks of followers, which have ‘self-organised’ by topic of interest. Major social networks currently have hundreds of millions of users and continue to grow rapidly.
An opportunity for government health agencies
The research, which examined a sample of more than 4,700 tweets from 114 Australian government, non-profit and for-profit health-related organisations, also found that government organisations were probably not maximising their potential influence in social media.  Despite having the greatest average number of followers and re-tweets, government organisations generated the lowest number of tweets across the sample.
In addition, while researchers found that most major health conditions were present in the Twittersphere, there were some surprises in the proportions found and some were notably underrepresented.
“Four of the government’s eight [at the time the research was undertaken but now nine] National Health Priority Areas were underrepresented in our sample, including asthma, arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, injury prevention and control, and obesity. These conditions only made up 1.7 per cent of health-related tweets,” said Prof Steele.
“Government health messages are clearly seen as an authoritative source and worth following.  We don’t see all health priority areas under represented but the take away is that there is an opportunity for the Government to use Twitter more,” he said.
Prof Steele said important public health information that may benefit from micro-blogs like Twitter could include communicable disease outbreaks, information about natural disasters, promotion of new treatments and clinical trials, and dietary and nutrition advice.
“When you look for information on a search engine, algorithms and computers determine the most important results. With social media networks, you have a ‘push’ mechanism, where interested individuals are directly alerted to public health information. You also have a prodigious network of users whose time and effort to find and follow relevant accounts, and to filter which information is forwarded or retweeted, represents a powerful aggregate human work effort.”

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