Take Two Tylenol and Tweet Me in the Morning:

How Social Media is Impacting Public Health

Effective communication is a critical function within any public health system. Social media has evolved the way we communicate and has the potential to enhance public health communication. Twitter has become one of the most popular social platforms that allows users to send tweets in real time. Social media has provided a platform where providers and their patients are finding new opportunities for online interactions.

In public health, social media can be used to inform, educate, and empower people about health issues. These platforms can be used to enhance the speed at which communication is sent and received, especially during public health emergencies or outbreaks. Sites like Twitter and Facebook can be used to mobilize community partnerships and action, to facilitate behavior change, to collect surveillance data, and to understand public perceptions of issues (Thackeray, Neiger, Smith, & Wagenen, 2012). According to Allied Health World (World, 2013), one third of all consumers use social media for matters regarding their health. People are forming online patient support groups, becoming better educated on medical topics and diagnoses and sharing doctor and product reviews wherever and whenever they want.The trend isn’t lost on doctors. One study conducted in 2012 found that 24% said they used social media at least once a day to look for medical information, while almost two-thirds think social media enhances their ability to care for their patients. Below, an infographic from Allied Health World, illustrates social media in a public health environment.

In 2009, the Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study  on health communication in this digital age. Research showed that among Internet users, social media penetrates populations regardless of education, race/ethnicity, or health care access. The results of this study suggest that in the future, social media promises to reach the target populations regardless of socioeconomic and health-related characteristics. If we can enable broader and more equitable Internet access, and reduce the digital divide, the potential for impacting the health and health behavior of the general US population through social media is tremendous.  Based on these findings, social media outlets may represent an excellent opportunity to reach traditionally underserved members of the population (Atkinson et al., 2009).

Social media has the potential to improve the way public health agencies engage, interact and communicate with its various audiences. Specifically, social media facilitates opportunities for engaging audiences and  maintaining relationships. If public health agencies can use social media to engage their audiences and create relationships, then they are one step closer to establishing true community-based partnerships to address public health problems. (Thackeray, Neiger, Smith, & Wagenen, 2012)

In the case of Twitter, since tweets often reflect real time updates, they’re filled with useful observations and information about the larger world. Researchers have examined a range of applications based on tweets that have demonstrated Twitter’s ability to deliver fast, cheap, and reliable tools for monitoring real-world events (Dredze, of Publication: 24 August 2012).

These successes have drawn interest from the public-health community. Public health researchers’ goal is to study the health of a population and develop policies that improve health outcomes. Traditionally, this requires expensive, time-consuming monitoring mechanisms, primarily surveys and data collection from clinical encounters. Even high-priority projects, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) FluView program that tracks the weekly US influenza rate, are still slow because they require clinical data aggregation. Twitter and other social media could reduce cost and provide real-time statistics about public health (Dredze, of Publication: 24 August 2012).

The monitoring of Twitter data can also enable the creation of entirely new public-health capabilities. Behaviors that people might be reluctant to share with physicians are on full display on Twitter, including behaviors, opinions, and subpopulations that are otherwise difficult to track through traditional mechanisms, suggesting a whole new area of large-scale public-health research (Dredze, of Publication: 24 August 2012).

Of course, when dealing with sensitive personal data, privacy and security concerns quickly become apparent. Consumers are worried their medical information will go public. Insurers and providers must try to protect patient privacy and act within the bounds of HIPAA and the FDA as they participate in the online social sphere. Therefore, social media research must consider user privacy. Even when data are publicly available, users have privacy expectations, such as concern over algorithms that infer unstated user demographics or diagnoses from public data. Although studies have posed little concern so far, an increase in research complexity could cause a rise in legal and ethical issues. Social media researchers must remain vigilant regarding privacy Issues.

Regardless, as security mechanisms improve and privacy protocols become more sophisticated, we can expect to see entirely new capabilities for public-health research, policy, and practice.




Atkinson, N., Chou Wy, S., Hunt, Y. M., Beckjord, E. B., Moser, R. P., & Hesse, B. W. (2009). Social Media Use in the United States: Implications for Health Communication. J Med Internet Res, 11(4). doi:10.2196/jmir.1249

Dredze, M. (of Publication: 24 August 2012). How Social Media Will Change Public Health – IEEE Journals & Magazine. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 27(4).

Thackeray, R., Neiger, B. L., Smith, A. K., & Wagenen, S. B. V. (2012). Adoption and use of social media among public health departments. BMC Public Health, 12(1), 242. doi:doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-242

World, A. H. (2013, 2013-01-14). Infographic: A tweet a day keeps the doctor away. Retrieved from https://www.mobihealthnews.com/news/infographic-tweet-day-keeps-doctor-away

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