Putting the "Public" Back in Public Health: Social Media in Local Health Departments

Aug 24, 2011, 2:51 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

This week’s Public Health Informatics Conference has focused on using technology to make connections. Social media is all about connections, and has allowed public health departments to not only connect with their communities but also to make their community's voices heard, bucking the trend of health departments using social media without really engaging. Larimer County Colorado is allowing all sectors to contribute to an open pandemic flu planning wiki, while the Boston Public Health Commission recruited teens to communicate to each other about sexually transmitted infections, as in the video above.

Collaborating for Preparedness on a Flu Pandemic Wiki

Joseph Schreurs of the Larimer County Colorado Department of Health reported on the county's use of collaborative wikis to foster collaboration around preparedness planning. Wikis are interactive, collaborative web sites to help plan and share information dynamically. Shreurs noted that social media has a history in facilitating communication around natural disasters, where communities are overwhelmed, the infrastructure is impacted, and many different agencies want to help and provide information. Disaster planning can work better if groups have one place where they can talk and plan – and, importantly, leverage each others’ knowledge.

“The better we plan as a group, the better prepared we are overall,” said Schreurs.

Larimer County’s flu planning wiki brought together all sectors that would be impacted by a flu pandemic, from local colleges to city officials to private businesses and employers, where anyone could contribute and each group could build upon knowledge provided by another.

One way the group learned from each other was in discovering what would happen to the network infrastructure if everyone was told to work from home in the event of a pandemic – the network would shut down. Knowing that the network would not have the capacity for this scenario helped them to better plan together. Benefits of wikis include low cost, ease of use, and version control to alleviate fear of rogue editors (any changes can easily be undone), said Schreurs. He suggested plenty of staff training, resources for monitoring, setting information management policies, and planning for a sustainable presence to make similar collaborative spaces successful.

Letting Teens Tell the Story of STI Prevention

Ann Scales, director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission, took social media collaboration to the extreme – when they learned teens would prefer to get messages on sexually transmitted infections from their peers, they temporarily ceded control of their Facebook page to the voices of teens themselves. The Commission first hosted a YouTube contest for teens to develop public service announcements on STIs, knowing videos direct from teens would resonate better with the audience. They then recruited the creators of the winning video (pictured above) to provide live Facebook status updates on the Boston sex ed Facebook page. In the first year of the program, there was a marked decline in Chlamydia rates among the target population.

“What we quickly leaned was that we had to get out of the way and let them tell the story to each other,” said Scales.

Tips for Using Social Media Well

Nina Jolani, program assistant for the Public Health Informatics program at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, shared some overall advice for state health departments looking to build a social media presence:

  • Set clear goals
  • Select the proper channel (based on goals, not what’s trendy)
  • Get key players involved (CIOs, IT and program staff)
  • Develop a social media policy and make it public
  • Evaluate return on investment
  • Capture and share lessons and results with local health department leadership

Visit NACCHO’s Toolbox for more social media resources.

Julia Gunn, R.N., M.P.H., Director of the Communicable Disease Control Division of the Boston Public Health Commission and moderator of this session, closed with a challenge: “Let’s use social media to put the ‘public’ back in public health!”

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