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Twitter 'boosts health emergency response'

Facebook and Twitter are helping to improve and speed up responses to natural disasters and health emergencies by involving members of the public, it has been claimed.

Social media allowed an “unprecedented” two-way exchange of information between the public and those given the task of preparing for and responding to major events such as earthquakes, floods and infection pandemics, said researchers.

“By sharing images, texting and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a large response network, rather than remaining mere bystanders or casualties,” said the US team led by Dr Raina Merchant, an emergency medicine expert from the University of Pennsylvania.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors say harnessing social media could help emergencies to be handled in a “quicker, more co-ordinated, effective way”.

The technology allowed officials to “push” information to the public while at the same time “pulling” in valuable data from bystanders.

An example of social media in action was seen during the 2009 swine flu epidemic.

The US Department of Health’s “Mommycast” over YouTube and iTunes helped to keep one million viewers up to date about the disease, said the researchers.

At the same time, regional health departments drew people to vaccination sites within minutes of texting and tweeting about shot availability. Within a year, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s @CDCemergency Twitter following grew 20-fold.

Future social media strategies that could aid disaster preparedness and response included the use of GPS-linked mobile phone apps, such as Foursquare and Loopt, said the researchers.

They could enable off-duty nurses or paramedics to broadcast their willingness to help in nearby emergencies.

Another idea was the creation of web-based “buddy” systems allowing friends and neighbours to keep track of at-risk people during heat waves or cold snaps and connect them with social services and medical care.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds and mobile apps could also help public health planners gauge the strain on healthcare systems and divert patients to the best resourced facilities during a disaster, said the authors.

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