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Health Departments Still Mastering The Art Of Tweeting


Public health departments are trying to reach their audiences through social media, but most have yet to learn how to "tweet" beyond the choir.

That’s the basic finding of a study out of Washington University in St. Louis that looked at how effectively local health agencies reach audiences through Twitter. Based on the study’s findings, health department tweets are more likely to connect with other health experts, educators and non-profit groups rather than ordinary consumers in need of reliable health information.

In other words, consumers aren’t turning to social media for routine information on health related issues, such as managing their diabetes, finding the closest place to get a free flu shot or seeking advice on coping with allergies.

It’s not that social media isn’t wildly popular; it’s just that the health departments haven’t learned to use it to reach their intended audiences, according to Jenine K. Harris, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School and lead author of the study.

The study looked at who is following health departments on Twitter and what kind of information the departments are tweeting about. The study, published in theJournal of Medical Internet Research, covered 59 health departments, including four in the Missouri counties of McDonald, Gasconade, Cass and Polk. It found that 58 percent those following local health departments on Twitter were associated with organizations, not individuals, and some of those organizations were located in other states.  

Credit Brown School Washington University
Jenine K. Harris, assistant professor at Washington University's Brown School.

“I thought they (health departments) were trying to reach their constituents, people in their local jurisdictions,” Harris said. The study also found that the health department averaged between 400 and 500 Twitter followers.

The findings, she said, demonstrate how far local health departments have to go to fully take advantage of social media as a means of engaging their constituencies about health services and risks. 

The interactive nature of social media means sharing information through platforms like Twitter can be effective and “is a little different from the health department putting a billboard on the highway or putting a pamphlet in a doctor’s office,” Harris said.

Roughly 63 percent of all adults are said to use social media, and the rate is even higher among younger people, Harris said.  “It reaches a lot of people. It’s more interactive, and I think that’s where we really have some potential to engage people with health information.”

Harris said public health departments could learn how to more effectively use social media by looking at how businesses use it to engage their customers.

“Industry is doing things to get people to respond. They are having little contests, getting people to play little games on social media. They are giving away things. If you like a photo on Facebook, for example, you might be entered into a drawing (to win a prize)," Harris said. "Health departments don’t have a lot to give away, but we can definitely adapt those strategies as well.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.