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What Public Health Departments Need to Adopt Social Media

March 5th, 2014 by Guest Communications


Written by: Sara Rubin and Nidhi Bouri

On Feb. 4 the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) and the UPMC Center for Health Security released their joint report: Riding the Mobile Wave: What Local Health Departments Need in Order to Adopt Social Media and Mobile Health Technologies for Emergency Preparedness (PDF). While the American public’s use of social media and mobile technologies has grown dramatically in recent years, most local health departments (LHDs) are not using these tools because they lack the resources or support needed to carry out these efforts. This study analyzes what organizational factors LHD staff perceive as necessary to support their use of social media and mobile health (mHealth). The lessons learned from this study can inform policymakers at the local, state and federal levels of how to support LHDs in advancing their use of social media and mHealth for emergency preparedness.

NACCHO and UPMC produced this report to catalyze improvements in LHDs’ ability to use social media and mobile technologies to improve preparedness efforts. Study authors conducted 65 interviews with LHD staff across the country and analyzed existing data and studies on the use of social media and mobile technologies for disaster management. This study analyzes what organizational factors LHD staff perceive as necessary to support their use of social media and mHealth. Such factors identified in this report include:

  • In-house capacity: The ability of both staff and the LHD as a whole (e.g., other organizational components such as strategic plans and internal management) to effectively integrate social media and mHealth programs into their department’s overall communication and emergency preparedness strategy.
  • Leadership support and policies: Implied or expressed support of leaders, in the LHD or at other government levels, to encourage the use of social media and mHealth, and the existence of specific rules or policies, formal or informal, regulating or encouraging the use of such technologies.
  • Legal and security issues: Concerns around security of information and the application of legal guidance for mHealth and social media programs.
  • Audiences: Intended and targeted audiences at which LHDs aim to direct programs, including those in different geographic locations and those considered vulnerable or at risk.

Several roadblocks prevent local practitioners from capitalizing on the benefits of social media and mHealth platforms. LHDs can take steps to work around these impediments and advance their use of social media and mHealth. At the same time, policymakers can revise guidance and policies to support LHD use of these platforms and to more accurately clarify how federal laws apply. A selection of recommended actions for LHD leaders to take, framed by the project team in light of the interviews in the study and analysis of relevant research, include:

  • Assess internal baseline capacity and augment, as needed, with the support of external partners. LHD leaders should take steps to better understand their department’s baseline capacity to use social media and mHealth for emergency preparedness and identify external resources that could help fill gaps in staffing and funding. Health departments should also identify community-based organizations and academic institutions that can offer pro bono or low-cost services to fill staffing and training gaps, such as unpaid interns and contractual services.
  • Expand existing communication plans. LHDs should integrate social media and mobile technologies into existing communication plans. As many interviewees emphasized, these platforms should not replace current communication mechanisms, but rather supplement current approaches to circulate information rapidly and to wider audiences.
  • Learn from existing practices at other LHDs. Staff should take steps now to engage with and learn from their colleagues at other LHDs. As some interviewees noted, merely talking with colleagues in the next county’s health department or at a health department with visibly advanced efforts can help guide staff in developing programs and establishing policies.

Actions for policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to take include:

  • Promote the creation of an information exchange database. As evidenced by numerous interviewee requests, a database or resource for LHDs to share examples of current efforts, funding sources, or successful uses and applications of mHealth and social media would be extremely useful in helping LHDs identify best practices and uses for different platforms. State and local officials should work to form or support the creation of such a database to serve as a mechanism for sharing information among LHDs regionally.
  • Identify how to integrate local information sharing into a national-level system. Federal agencies should also support creating a database at the national level that joins these local efforts and potentially includes other key stakeholders, such as nongovernment organizations and community-based organizations.
  • Support research to improve the evidence base for technology use. While statistics indicate increasing and widespread use of social networking sites and mobile devices, LHDs lack the evidence base to demonstrate the role of these platforms in advancing public health activities, including emergency preparedness. Policymakers should explore ways to incorporate this needed research into efforts that are already being funded.

NACCHO is the voice of the approximately 2,800 LHDs across the country. LHDs prepare communities for disasters, respond if emergencies occur, and lend support throughout the recovery process. They are uniquely positioned to not only provide day-to-day preparedness messaging to the public, but also to reach them during emergencies to communicate and enhance situational awareness. Despite the promise of new media and its widespread use by the public, many LHDs face roadblocks that prevent them from fully adopting social media and mobile technologies. This study sought to identify what organizational factors LHDs perceive as influential in precluding or enabling their use of these platforms.

This article was originally published by NACCHO. Sara Rubin serves as a senior program analyst for Pandemic and Catastrophic Preparedness at NACCHO. Nidhi Bouri is a senior analyst for the UPMC Center for Health Security.

This article was shared on and is reprinted with permission:

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