Are health departments tweeting to the choir?

Brown School researchers study use of social media to spread health information

The use of social media to disseminate information is increasing in local health departments, but a new study out of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis finds that Twitter accounts are followed more by organizations than individuals and may not be reaching the intended audience.

“Health departments really have 10 essential services that they provide, and one of the essential services is to inform and educate their constituency about health and health risks,” said Jenine K. Harris, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and lead author of “Are Public Health Organizations Tweeting to the Choir? Understanding Local Health Department Twitter Followership.”

“Social media, if used strategically, can be a useful tool for public health departments,” Harris said.

In the study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers analyzed 4,779 Twitter followers from 59 local health departments. Followers from organizations tended to be health-focused, out-of-state, and from the education, government and nonprofit sectors. Individual followers were likely to be local and not health-focused.


“Their followership isn’t huge so far — 400 or 500 people on average, or other Twitter users on average, will follow a health department,” Harris said. “And so our next step was to see who those followers were and determine if health departments were reaching people in their local jurisdictions, or who they were reaching in general.”

The study found that health departments with a higher percentage of local followers were more likely to have public information officers on staff, serve larger populations, and “tweet” more often.

“Social media has the potential to reach a wide and diverse audience,” Harris said. “If local health departments can use these platforms, they may be able to reach people during an emergency such as Hurricane Sandy or during a flu outbreak to give people information about where to go and what to do to stay safe.”

In addition to Harris, study co-authors were Bechara Choucair, MD, of the Chicago Department of Public Health; Ryan C. Maier, of the Brown School’s Center for Public Health Systems Science; Nina Jolani, of the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington, D.C.; and Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, of the University of Florida.

Read an abstract of the study here.