I still encounter plenty of cynically raised eyebrows whenever I suggest that Twitter has become an essential tool for public health advocates. (If your eyebrows have just erupted into irritable twitches, please don’t stop reading).

Below, public health researcher Ben Harris-Roxas makes a strong case for the merits of Twitter in public health. Amongst other things, he has used it to establish  Public Health Daily, a Twitter paper.

Also below is a summary of Twitter tools that may be of particular interest to public health researchers, compiled by Dr Fiona Martin of the University of Sydney’s Department of Media and Communications, for a recent seminar at the Sydney School of Public Health.

And at the very bottom of the post is a series of links to recent interesting articles about Twitter, including some advice from the Mayo Clinic == and a recent Twitter discussion asking whether the Jean Hailes Foundation is unduly medicalising women’s lives.


How Twitter has helped me

Ben Harris-Roxas writes:

There’s widespread skepticism about the value of social media in health circles, but also more widely. Incidents like Stephanie Rice’s ill-advised tweeting don’t help. But by allowing us to reach new audiences, and by being exposed to new ideas ourselves, Twitter may still be useful to health professionals.

Twitter lets people post messages and links in 140 characters or less. A message is known as a tweet and topics are indicated by using “hashtags”, such as #publichealth.

“Surely that’s mostly inane drivel,” you say. Well, in large part, yes. Twitter has over 145 million registered users. Only 5-10% are active on a regular basis, and only 10% of those are discussing professional topics, rather than personal ones. That still leaves 725,000 people from all around the world who are regularly sharing serious information.

One of the problems of using Twitter is that people join, follow a few B-grade celebrities, and then say “that’s it?”

The real value of Twitter come from finding people who share your interests and interacting with them, and that takes time.

To give you a sense how Twitter works take a look at the PublicHealth Daily. This page brings together popular tweets that have used the #publichealth hashtag. I set it up but I don’t curate it in any way – paper.li updates it automatically every day using links that anyone has shared on Twitter. If the idea of Twitter intimidates you this page might still be of use.

Public health in Australia has been innovative in its use of new information technologies for analytic purposes but often Flintstonian in our use of new communication technologies. Within professional circles, listservs and newsletter are still the dominant mode for communicating new ideas and information, technologies that already looked outmoded by the mid-’90s. Communication with the public is often done through mainstream media or social marketing.

We don’t want to discount the importance of these forms of communication due to their massive footprint, as I’ve argued before. The problem is that newspaper, radio and television audiences are becoming fractured and harder to reach.

Increasingly audiences also expect a degree of interaction, as they shift from passive modes of information reception to more active ones that involve sharing and commenting on information.

And this shift, from a form of passivity to activity, is often what health promotion messages are trying to achieve. It wouldn’t hurt us to model some of that behaviour in our public communication efforts.