"Clearly, social media are changing the way people communicate not only in their day-to-day lives, but also during disasters that threaten public health. Engaging with and using emerging social media may well place the emergency-management community, including medical and public health professionals, in a better position to respond to disasters," Dr. Raina M. Merchant, Stacy Elmer and Dr. Nicole Lurie of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine commentary published this week.
The authors, who said their opinions were their own and not those of HHS, cautioned that social media should not replace other preparedness or response efforts, but rather augment existing programs. "The effectiveness of our public health emergency system relies on routine attention to preparedness, agility in responding to daily stresses and catastrophes, and the resilience that promotes rapid recovery. Social media can enhance each of these component efforts," they said.
Merchant, Elmer, and Lurie cited numerous incidents where social media improved communication for both dissemination and collection of critical information. Among these were the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, as well as nonhealth emergencies, such as the popular uprising in Egypt earlier this year. Thanks in no small part to worries about H1N1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) @CDCEmergency emergency-preparedness Twitter feed went from 65,000 to 1.2 million followers in the space of a year, the authors reported.
"In many instances, by sharing images, texting, and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a large response network, rather than remaining mere bystanders or casualties. During the first hour and a half of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, students posted on-scene updates on Facebook," they explained.
"Integrating these networks into a community's preparedness activities for public health emergencies could help to build social capital and community resilience, making it easier for both professional responders and ordinary citizens to use familiar social media networks and tools in a crisis."
Location-based services such as Foursquare also have a role in emergency preparedness and response, according to the HHS staffers. People who "check in" at a given location can share information about potential hazards. "With an additional click, perhaps off-duty nurses or paramedics who check in at a venue could also broadcast their professional background and willingness to help in the event of a nearby emergency," they wrote.
The authors noted that many hospitals already make ER and walk-in clinic waiting times available through Twitter and smartphone apps.
"Routine collection and rapid dissemination of these measures of strain on a healthcare system can inform decision making by patients and healthcare providers and administrators," they said. "Monitoring this important information through the same social channels during an actual disaster may help responders verify whether certain facilities are overloaded and determine which ones can offer needed medical care."
Still, planners and response teams should be wary of the limitations of social media, since it could be difficult to verify the identity of users and the accuracy of the information they provide, the commentary said.
Find out how health IT leaders are dealing with the industry's pain points, from allowing unfettered patient data access to sharing electronic records. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: There needs to be better e-communication between technologists and clinicians. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)