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Twitter a ‘promising medium’ for public health information

Social platforms such as Twitter are great for finding fresh content and getting the word out to networks.

New research from the University of Sydney says that these micro-blog-based services (Twitter) could be a great medium for spreading important public health information.

Social networks have "potentially powerful" characteristics that set them apart from other online methods of health information dissemination such as search engines, research from Professor Robert Steele and PhD candidate Dan Dumbrell indicates.

"Using new communications technologies to allow people to directly receive relevant and up-to-the-minute public health information could benefit the health of millions and change the paradigm of public health information dissemination," said Professor Steele, head of Discipline and chair of Health Informatics at the university's Faculty of Health Sciences.

"Twitter has a powerful characteristic in that it is members of the public who distribute public health information by forwarding messages from public health organisations to their followers."

Professor Steele believes that this offers a new way for public health organisations to engage more directly with the public and influence individuals' networks of followers.

Information about natural disasters, communicable disease outbreaks, new treatments, and clinical trials and nutrition advice could be more efficiently disseminated through the use of micro-blogs.

When looking for information on search engines, computers and algorithms determine what are the most important results, but with social media networks you have a "push mechanism", where interested individuals are directly alerted to this public health information, Professor Steele said.

A sample of over 4,700 tweets from 114 Australian government, for-profit and non-profit health-related organisations were examined by researchers, with each tweet grouped according to the health condition mentioned, type of information provided, any replies or retweets and inclusion of a hyperlink.

A majority of the tweets in the sample (59 per cent) were non-condition specific, with tweets about mental health, cancer, and fitness and nutrition following behind.

Most major health conditions were present on Twitter, said Professor Steele, but he revealed that they were "somewhat surprised" by the proportions.

"Four of the government’s eight National Health Priority Areas were underrepresented in our sample, including asthma, arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, injury prevention and control, and obesity."

"These conditions only made up 1.7 percent of health-related tweets."

Government accounts were found to have the most success at disseminating public health information – despite the lower average number of tweets – having the largest number of average followers and re-tweets.

Posted by April Revake.