Why Social Media Is Important to Public Health
November 30, 2011
By Missie Thurston
When tropical storm Irene hit the small northeastern state of Vermont, most people didn't know who Sarah Waterman was, but within the next 48 hours this would change. Waterman, a 27 year-old with a Master of Public Administration degree, would build tools to help thousands of Vermonters cope with the statewide disaster.
Tropical storm Irene devastated much of Vermont. The rural, mountainous state was overwhelmed with rain. Power was out, homes were evacuated, and roads were washed away. As the extent of the damage became clear, Waterman and her colleagues created www.vtresponse.com. It was a place for people to send requests for help or to volunteer services following the emergency.
Waterman and her colleagues also started a Twitter account, @vtresponse, which posted item after item about ways to help. Soon Waterman and her colleagues had information streaming in from people throughout the state. She had become a trusted, and needed, resource.
As a native of Vermont, I closely followed what was happening to my home state. As I did so, I was struck by the power of social media. I teach public health professionals about many aspects of communication, and in the past few years social media has been a popular topic. I have taught public health professionals how various social media tools could be used, using my Twitter account (@missiethurston) and other social media accounts (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn) to demonstrate how each modality works.
I knew that this training was important because public health has to know about communication tools to develop strategies that use the tools effectively, but I reasoned that it would be best for each public health program to individually assess social media and determine if it was strategically important to that program. After all, public health has a broad realm of responsibility and tight resources. I knew that some programs (such as those designed to provide exercise programs to the elderly) didn't need social media.
But tropical storm Irene made me realize that I should have added a qualifier for public health emergency preparedness. I should have shown the absolute necessity for public health preparedness to understand and be ready to use social media.
It is public health's job to help provide resources and safety advice during emergencies. How do you do that when your population is without power and removed from their homes? The 2010 earthquake in Haiti proved that cell phones are essential communication tools during emergencies, but now smart phones are further changing information avenues. During tropical storm Irene, people were hungry for information and, although they were evacuated to large shelters and had no power, their smart phones functioned perfectly. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media venues were quickly disseminating critical, timely information.
In addition to being one of the only functioning areas of communication, social media venues were also a preferred method of communication because of their user-generated content. Emergency responders and news crews couldn't travel the state in these dangerous conditions, but users all over the state were uploading their own pictures and videos of what was happening. People were crowd-sourcing emergency information and public health should have been too.
Vermont needed the tools Waterman and her colleagues constructed, and that should be motivation enough for health departments to learn and use social media because not every community has a Sarah Waterman. But beyond the emergency, and the mitigation of death or illness, there are other long-lasting impacts from the use of these tools for the public and for public health.
As I followed the storm, I scrambled to monitor my family and friends. I joined or began following numerous news sources. One of those sources was the Vermont Flooding on Facebook. In hours, Vermont Flooding 2011 had 1,000 then 2,000 then 5,000 people who "liked" it. As of today, Vermont Flooding 2011 on Facebook has 23,900 people who "like" it. The Vermont Department of Health's Facebook page has 460.
Imagine if the Department of Health had the staffing and expertise to make the health department's Facebook page a resource like Vermont Flooding 2011. And imagine if the Vermont Department of Health could now easily deliver important health messages to 23,900 people on Facebook.
I can now say with conviction that public health must learn and use social media effectively to adequately serve communities. For more information about my experience with tropical storm Irene and social media, please feel free to visit my blog at www.missiethurston.com/blog or tweet me a comment or question @missiethurston.
Slideshow: Click on a small image to see a larger version; click on the larger image to view fullscreen.
The top floor of a home sits where the river left it near Brattleboro,
Vermont. (Photo courtesy Luke Stafford)
Before and after Irene photos of Vermont's Route 4 with the riverbed next
to it. (Photo courtesy Google Maps)
The covered bridge in Quechee, Vermont which usually sits many feet
above the river. (Unknown photo source)
Water overtakes Woodstock, Vermont. Notice the floating propane tank.
(Photo courtesy Kathleen Robbins)