Public Health Must Learn Social Media

As I prepare to teach 60 college seniors about communications strategy next week, I find myself thinking about how my classes have changed in these past three months. Three months ago, a natural disaster weighed down on my family and friends back in my home state of Vermont. It was an experience that impacted me personally and professionally, reiterating my love for Vermont and forever altering my perception of social media.

Public Health: A Big Job That Gets Bigger

Public health has a broad mandate. Essentially, public health (through the combined efforts of health departments, non-profits, organizations, and agencies at the local, state, national, and tribal levels) is supposed to ensure that the entire population can live healthy lives.

Take a moment to think about the myriad of factors that combine to make someone healthy. People need treatment for illness and disease, equal access to healthy foods, and safe indoor and outdoor spaces. We need an uncontaminated water supply, vaccines, and manageable levels of air pollution. The elderly need exercise programs. Kids need dental care. Buildings need sprinkler systems. Babies need safe cribs. All of these conditions, and more, are within the purview of public health.

A child swings at a playground

People need outdoor environments for healthy activities and safe transportation.

As if the day-to-day requirements of keeping the population healthy weren’t challenging enough, public health also needs to protect the public during an emergency–like an earthquake or what we experienced on 9/11. Warning sirens, evacuation routes, shelters, coordinated response protocols…public health must have a tremendous level of pre-planned infrastructure to help large numbers of people both mitigate and cope with physical, mental, and emotional dangers.

Public health, as you can imagine, must be incredibly adaptable to do its job well. As our world continues to evolve, public health must navigate new realms of responsibility. One of those new realms is social media. If public health doesn’t learn social media, particularly as it can help public health emergency preparedness, it will be more than a lost opportunity. It will be negligence. But it took a natural disaster for me to understand this.

August 28, 2011: The Day My Opinion Changed

On August 28, 2011, my husband, Brian, and I were supposed to be on a flight from Boston to Seattle, returning home after visiting friends and family in our home state of Vermont. Instead, our flight was cancelled. We sat in Boston, glued to our computers.

Weather Channel's visual depiction of Hurricane Irene's path

The Weather Channel shows Irene's path

Hurricane Irene had been working its way up the Eastern seaboard. Though downgraded to a tropical storm, she was moving more slowly than anticipated and dropping copious amounts of precipitation. It soon became evident that Vermont was in trouble. Water rushed down Vermont’s rivers, and when the rivers overtook their banks, the water rushed through Vermont towns. Brian and I scrambled to find news coverage, but news crews couldn’t travel the state. The flooding was taking out roads and bridges, isolating entire communities.

This was the day social media forever changed in my mind. Phone lines were down. Cable was out. Roads had been swallowed up. Neither news crews nor emergency responders—including public health—could reach people. But cell phones and the 3G network prevailed. Social media was there.

Irene pummels the Quechee covered bridge

Quechee's covered bridge

On Facebook, I could see the photo of my friend’s home, with the water rising, right before he was evacuated. Twitter informed me which roads were washed out and which town halls were being set up as shelters. Text messages came from relatives who hadn’t had power or consistent cell service in hours. I heard what was happening to my friends and family directly from my friends and family.

It was the only real-time source of information for people on the outside, wanting and needing to know about what was happening. It was the only resource for thousands who had been cut off by the rapidly rising floodwaters, and it was an essential tool for communities to begin responding—creating evacuation sites and providing updates about evolving dangers.

Floodwaters destroy Route 4 in Killington, Vermont

Floodwaters destroy Route 4 in Killington

Experiencing this, I realized that the class I should have been teaching public health professionals is more than a simple “how to” class. I needed to be teaching people how to advocate for the use of social media in their public health departments and community-based organizations to develop plans for how to use it in a public health emergency.

Social media allows public health (and all other stakeholders) to monitor communities and situations, as well as providing a way to reach a large number of people with critical, timely information. This is particularly important when other communication channels may fail.

Of course, not all information shared via social media during Tropical Storm Irene was accurate. It is important to realize that social media does not have a filter, so reports can be misrepresented or misconstrued. It makes education more important, so we can teach people how to post and re-post credible information and cite information sources. But social media also has the ability to quickly transmit photographic information, which can quickly show the reality of a situation and is a valuable asset to victims, emergency responders, neighbors, governments, and relatives. Social media provides tools to help communities mitigate and cope before, during, and after an emergency.

If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them below.

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One Response to Public Health Must Learn Social Media

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