State health departments hit ‘like’ button on use of social media to spread information

Brown School research finds Twitter, Facebook use among state health departments growing, especially in states with larger, urban populations

With social media pervasive in virtually all aspects of society, public health organizations, including state health departments, are finding web-based social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook useful tools to spread public health information.A new study, led by Jenine K. Harris, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, examined the use of social media by state health departments in the United States.

The study, published Feb. 7 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research, found, as of February 2012, 28 state health departments used Facebook and 41 used Twitter as tools to disseminate health information.


“Health departments seem to be realizing how widespread social media use is,” says Harris, who also is a faculty scholar in WUSTL’s Institute for Public Health. “With 67 percent of online Americans using at least one social media site, health information posted could potentially reach a large audience — including people from traditionally hard-to-reach lower income populations.”

State health departments adopting social media, Harris says, tend to be in more populated states with more urban residents and higher levels of Internet access. Adopting health departments also tended to have higher per-capita health department expenditures, more educated leadership, and a larger, younger staff.

The study was co-authored by Doneisha L. Snider, a student in the Brown School’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program and graduate research assistant at the Center for Public Health Systems Science; and Nancy Mueller, project coordinator and an alumnus of the MPH program.

“Although social media is a promising tool for health departments, we don’t yet know enough about who is connected to the health departments on social media and how effective it is in educating and informing those who are connected,” Harris says.

But she and her team are working on it. Harris recently received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine adoption and use of social media by local health departments nationwide, with the long-term goal of developing best practices for social media use by health departments.