Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Tech & Tools

State Health Depts Like Social Media to Spread Information

With social media pervasive in virtually all aspects of society, public health organizations, including state health departments, are finding that Web-based social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are useful tools in spreading public health information.

A new study, led by Jenine K. Harris, PhD, an assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, examined the use of social media by US state health departments. The study, published in Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research, found that as of February 2012, 28 state health departments used Facebook and 41 used Twitter as tools to disseminate health information.

“Health departments seem to be realizing how widespread social media use is,” says Harris, who also is a faculty scholar in the university’s Institute for Public Health. “With 67% of online Americans using at least one social media site, health information posted could potentially reach a large audience, including people from traditionally hard-to-reach lower-income populations.”

Harris says state health departments adopting social media tend to be in more populated states with more urban residents and higher levels of Internet access. Adopting health departments also tended to have higher per capita health department expenditures, more educated leadership, and a larger, younger staff.

“Although social media is a promising tool for health departments, we don’t yet know enough about who is connected to the health departments on social media and how effective it is in educating and informing those who are connected,” Harris says.

Harris recently received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine the adoption and use of social media by local health departments nationwide, with the long-term goal of developing best practices for social media use by health departments.

— Source: Washington University in St. Louis


Try These Apps, Then Text Me in the Morning

Smartphones have revolutionized how many of us function in our daily lives. The medical field is finding that smartphone apps also can be helpful in transforming a person’s health habits.

“Smartphones are a great way for people to track how their daily activities impact their health,” says Aaron Michelfelder, MD, a physician at Loyola University Health System and professor in the department of family medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “They give patients instant access to the effects their habits have on daily living, and they are better able to make connections between what they do and how they feel.”

Michelfelder believes the most beneficial apps are for people needing to monitor blood sugar and blood pressure, mood tracking, and asthma as well as fitness and nutrition.

“People who are detailed and willing to truly keep track of their data find them the most beneficial,” Michelfelder says. “It’s great that they can see right away I had such and such for dinner and this is how it impacted my blood sugar.”

Michelfelder believes these apps also help physicians to better treat a patient and have a more well-rounded view of their health. “I love when my patients bring their smartphone to a visit and show me their data or even e-mail me in advance,” he says. “This real-time data helps me better analyze a patient’s health than just the information I get from an office visit. This way instead of maybe having two blood pressure readings, I’ll have 25. This allows me to have a more in-depth conversation with the patient about where to go next.”

Though Michelfelder believes medical apps have benefits, there are limits and cautions that people need to be aware of as well.

“One of the greatest concerns I have is that the apps might not be compliant with HIPAA that protects patients’ health information,” Michelfelder says. “This is especially true for apps that allow you to e-mail your medical information.”

He suggests patients read an app’s terms and agreements to ensure a copy of the e-mail is not being sent to the company, and that personal medical information is not being stored in an unsecure location. Also, make sure the medical apps are password protected.

“Many of the diagnostic apps are not very reliable. I can see these becoming more helpful in the future. Right now, it is best not to use your phone to self-diagnose a problem, but it’s always a great idea to bring any concerns and ideas you have to your physician to discuss in detail,” Michelfelder says.

He also sees medical apps as a great way to get young adults and teens engaged in their health habits. “Research has shown that kids ages 7 to 18 average seven hours and 38 minutes a day in front of a screen. Why not use some of that screen time to get them engaged in their health like using a pedometer app?” he says.

Michelfelder warns patients not to download apps that are specific for physicians and notes that consumer medical apps are effective only when used in conjunction with a health professional. He believes they can be a great way for patients to continue to be engaged in the health process. He suggests people even use the notes function on their phone to keep a running list of questions for their physician so they don’t forget them when they come in for a scheduled visit.

“For centuries, physicians have encouraged patients to use diaries to keep track of their health habits. Now it’s just on the phone. It’s a lot easier than carrying around an extra notebook,” he says.

— Source: Loyola University Health System