Using social media for public health communication allows for any public health organization to reach a variety of audiences, particularly younger generations, with opportunities to learn, remain aware of health crises and trends in healthcare, as well as different ways to improve and maintain individual health. Many health-oriented organizations, such as the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, offers on websites tools and templates to develop social marketing campaigns and programs. CDC’s own practice offers online resources to help campaign developers tailor messages to target audiences, improving health literacy, evaluate health communication programs and more.
Even with the proliferation in social media usage—data show that 67 percent of internet users use social networking sites (Duggan & Brennar, 2012)—there is very little evidence to show that social media communicates public health organizations’ objectives and creates helpful dialogue with audiences. A report in an Advances in Consumer Health report described that it is difficult to promote and get an audience to engage in health-oriented activities because of deeply-rooted personal convictions and emotional beliefs about health and healthcare (Schlinger, 1978).

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While social media is more often thought of as leisure, pitfalls with something as crucial as healthcare and health maintenance present themselves. In an age in which WebMD can take a simple headache and and lead people to believe it is a brain tumor, individuals often look to finding the causes of his or her symptoms, neglecting to actual visit a doctor. In addition, there is a sea of information related to diseases, disorders and ailments; all of this information can inundate the mind of someone that is not a health professional. Despite these pitfalls, the use of social media can still be beneficial in health communication. On social media, health organizations post tips and even hold chats and webinars, both direct lines of communication to its audience. Depending on response times, an individual can ask a question of receive a reply within minutes, at the most hours. Using social media for public health communications also allows for individuals have autonomy, competency and interconnectedness. Applications that track water consumption, workouts and even days gone without smoking show initiative from the individual to take charge of his or her health. Online weight-loss groups and support groups for mental disorders provide a sense of community and camaraderie. A large advantage is that organizations have the ability to increase trustworthiness and consumer loyalty through social media usage.

The Center for Disease Control & Prevention uses its Twitter for “daily credible health and safety updates,” including videos, invitations to webinars, conferences, health tips, etc. Currently, the CDC’s twitter has been used as a platform to inform its audiences about the Zika virus, particularly with the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil, where the virus is prevalent, is coming up. Infographics, question & answer sessions, and helpful health tips are shared by this organization. In addition, the CDC’s twitter posts information about upcoming events that its staff will attend, such as BIO 2016, in which it will showcase “CDC technologies, SBIR, and collaboration options” (CDC, 2016).

In examining how the CDC is engaging with users and followers involves looking at its tweets and replies category on Twitter. Examples show of Twitter users asking for advice on travel vaccinations and health notices, questions about the presence of the Zika virus in the United States, pest control, etc. The CDC engages with its users every few days and multiple times in that day, particularly in publicizing webinars, seminars and events of which the CDC will be a part. The CDC personalizes its messages and replies to users, creating an open dialogue and an effective information-exchange medium.

Evidence shows that mass media efforts for public health communication and its campaigns have six objectives: 1) increasing awareness of a health problem (as the CDC has done with the Zika virus); 2) raising the level of information about health topics (as the CDC has done with the virus as well as Legionnaires’ disease, salmonella, etc,); 3) make a health topic or problem more salient; 4) stimulating interpersonal influence via conversations with those close to an individual; 5) generate forms of self-initiated information seeking; and 6) reinforce existing attitudes and behaviors (Schlinger, 1978. Coporations should heavily invest in a social media presence to tailor messages to target audiences and combat stagnant beliefs of healthcare rooted in personal experience, history and emotion.

Public health organizations should perform a variety of steps to ensure that its mass communication campaigns reach each possible audience with current and correct information, being able to answer questions that arise from disseminated information. As an industry marketer would do with a new product or service, planning successful health campaigns start with identifying a problem or need, establishing goals and objectives, and researching the target market, relevant to their susceptibility to the problem and its seriousness, etc. (Schlinger, 2016). These organizations should identify what people are talking about the most on social media channels so that any developed messages align with audience needs. Engagement with both the community as well as its influencers enhances the organization’s own credibility and is a powerful way to establish a mutually beneficial relationship that could possibly extend past the realm of social media. The best thing for public health organizations to do would be to continue inciting and engaging conversations with users and influencer thoughtfully and intellectually correct.

    References
  • Center for Disease Control & Prevention [CDCgov]/. (2016, June 6). Tweets [Twitter page]. Retrieved June 7, 2016, from https://twitter.com/CDCgov.
  • Daniel, K. L., Bernhardt, J. M., & Eroğlu, D. (2009, December). Social Marketing and Health Communication: From People to Places. American Journal of Public Health. pp. 2120-2122.
  • Freimuth, V. S., & Quinn, S. C. (2004). The Contributions of Health Communication to Eliminating Health Disparities. American Journal Of Public Health, 94(12), 2053-2055.
  • Heldman, A. B., Schindelar, J., & Weaver III, J. B. (2013). Social media engagement and public health communication: implications for public health organizations being truly” social”. Public Health Reviews, 35(1), 1.
  • Schlinger, Mary Jane. “The Role of Mass Communications in Promoting Public Health.” Advances in Consumer Research 3.1 (1976): 302-05. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 June 2016.