The web-based social media site Twitter is proving to be an effective tool for local health departments in disseminating health information -- especially in promoting specific health behaviors.
The latest study, led by Jenine K. Harris, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, focused on diabetes, a disease that may affect an estimated one-third of U.S. adults by 2050.
"We focused on diabetes first, both because of increasing diabetes rates," Harris says, "and also because people living with diabetes tend to use online health-related resources at a fairly high rate, so they are an audience that is already online and on social media."
The study was published May 2 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) electronic journal, Preventing Chronic Disease, and focused on how local health departments use social media to educate and inform the public about diabetes.
In a one-month period, Harris' team collected all tweets posted from every local health department with a Twitter account that were diabetes-related. Harris and her team then compared the health departments who utilized Twitter with those who did not.
The findings: Of 217 health departments with Twitter accounts, 126 had tweeted about diabetes, with three diabetes tweets being the median since adopting Twitter.
Health departments tweeting about diabetes were in larger cities, had more staff including public information specialists, and had higher per capita spending than those not tweeting about diabetes. Local health departments tweeting about diabetes were more likely to provide programs in diabetes-related areas like nutrition, physical activity, and chronic disease.
"Social media reaches a large proportion of the population, including low-income and minority groups that are often hard to reach," Harris says. "Some research has demonstrated that people are looking online for health information, making social media a potentially very useful way to reach a large audience already seeking health information."
The study was co-authored by Nancy Mueller, project coordinator and an alumnus of the Brown School's Master of Public Health (MPH) program; Doneisha L. Snider, a student in the MPH program and graduate research assistant at the Center for Public Health Systems Science; and Debra Haire-Joshu, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Prevention and Policy Research and the Center for Diabetes Translation Research at WUSTL and associate dean for research at the Brown School.
The study was supported by the Washington University Center for Diabetes Translation Research with a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.
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