Blog Post

Twitter and H1N1 alerts in Cincinnati

When I was home in Cincinnati over the summer, an interesting news article in the Cincinnati Enquirer caught my attention. The link is http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/AB/20090827/NEWS01/308270044/. It described how Cincinnati and Hamilton County health departments are using the new technologies of social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, to inform people about public health issues (such as swine flu). Since I hope to become a medical researcher, I have a strong interest learning about how new technolgies and communications systems impact healthcare. I think the article describes one of the major benefits of social networks as being the ability to instantaneously send important, up-to-date information to thousands of people. It allows public health officials to keep everyone updated as new problems or solutions (such as the distribution of H1N1 vaccines) occurs. However, a possible negative aspect with the instant messages could be widespread panic. Twitter messages could be misinterpreted, causing large populations to worry about an unrealistic medical threat. Similarly, many people do not have access to Twitter. For example, neither of my parents has a Twitter or Facebook account. Many people would remain uninformed about critical health issues if public health departments only publicized through digital media social networking sites. What do you think about Twitter as a public health tool? Do you think that public health will be able to rely solely on social networks to share information in the future, or should health communications rely on multiple forms of publicity (like open forums and newspaper articles)?   

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2 comments

I have been wondering how health authorities are using new media to communicate accurate information about the disease and also about traditional media for those who are not part of the information era digital community.  It would be great if you could keep us informed about this area over the year and if we could address it sometime in a discussion among HASTAC Scholars.  Thanks!

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A similar national news article caught my eye, too, about a new iPhone App called "Outbreaks Near Me" (ex - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090901111538.htm).  I'm fascinated by the idea of "grassroots, participatory epidemiology" (as they phrase it) and the powerful potential of so much data to lead to faster identification of outbreaks and a more thorough understanding of the spread of disease as well.  At the same time, there's something about the idea of your iPhone alerting you that someone "near you" is sick that seems - as you point out - to bear great "panic potential" as well, in a way that the person next to you in class sneezing and sniffling remarkably does not.  I will be very curious to see how (once we have the retrospective distance necessary to answer this) tools like this app, or Twitter updates, actually get used and to what effect.  Fascinating stuff!

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