Preparedness Goes Social: Twitter, Texts and Facebook for Health Emergencies

Jul 29, 2011, 6:58 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Can you help community members avoid public health catastrophe in 140 characters or less? When it comes to tweeting and texting emergency preparedness and response messages, maybe so. A new perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine offers commentary on the potential for social media to evolve how the public health field prepares for, responds to and recovers from public health emergencies.

Authors Raina Merchant, M.D., Stacy Elmer, M.A., and Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H., note that agility, speed and wide reach are all critical to emergency preparedness and management -- and social media tools meet these criteria with real-time, two-way communication that can potentially reach more than 40 million Americans. Two-way communication is important for different reasons, authors say, allowing public health officials to "push" alerts to those who need information and "pull" data from bystanders to help inform response efforts. Innovative examples so far include online message boards used by the American Red Cross to help find and identify suspected disaster victims, local health departments tweeting and texting vaccination clinic locations, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade using residents' texted photos of oiled birds to map and prioritize clean-up efforts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Guidance in this new arena is beginning to emerge – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released a toolkit to help local health departments set up public health emergency text messaging systems.

>> Read more on innovative uses of technology to improve public health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.