Monday, November 4, 2013

R U ready?

Technology’s role in public health is not a new development, but with each passing year, public health professionals are finding new ways to embrace technology and use it to their advantage, according to speakers at a Monday session on the use of social media and mobile apps to disseminate information about emergencies.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is at the forefront of these efforts, as highlighted by the agency’s work preparing for and responding to Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Sandy was the No. 2 most talked-about topic on Facebook in 2012, 1.1 million people mentioned the word “hurricane” within a 21-hour period of the storm’s landfall, and at the height of posting, 10 storm-related pictures were posted to Instagram every second, said Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist who presented at the session.

The bad news is that social media can also be a key way of sharing misinformation — a point driven home by the fact that a Photoshopped image of a storm looming over New York has become one of the most popular images associated with Sandy, although it is completely fictional, Dempsey said.

CDC prepares for emergency events by combing its websites and preparing materials that can quickly be tweeted out to followers before, during and after a storm or other emergency event. The agency has a plan in effect that includes phases of information – everything from how to prepare for an event such as a storm to how to respond even weeks later.

For instance, in the aftermath of Sandy, @CDC_DrPortier, the Twitter handle of then-director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, linked to a CDC Web page that provides information on cleaning up mold. In the weeks after that storm, the site clocked 14,000 hits, whereas it had only about 700 in the weeks before the Tweet.

“Retweets are key,” Dempsey said, explaining how the message could spread far beyond Portier’s followers when others repeated it. “Retweets really amplified the messaging. We would post and then it would be shared on other channels and would ripple throughout state and local and individuals.”

There’s little doubt about the importance of social media, but other presenters noted that it can be difficult to spread the word to those who need it most during or after an emergency. If phone lines, cell towers and electricity are out, those most in need of response messages might be those least likely to receive them, said Rahul Gupta, of West Virginia’s Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

To address the problem, the county developed KCHD Ready, a free app available to smartphone users that lives on the phone’s memory card rather than online. That way, if cell towers are down, people can still access information about disaster preparedness as well as maps detailing how to evacuate from the area, whom to contact in the event of an emergency and links to other important information.

— C.T.

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