A little bird told me

Research: Social media networks like Twitter could be the answer to disseminating targeted public health messages, yet Government health promoters remain under represented in the ‘Twittersphere’.

Above: The world’s best connected litle bird: Twitter

By Keryn Curtis with Sydney University

A new study by researchers from the University of Sydney has found that social media networks such as Twitter, have a strong potential for not only widely disseminating public health messages, but for directly engaging with specific target stakeholders; yet the most respected sources of public health information are among the least active in promoting their messages.  

The research, by Head of Discipline and Chair of Health Informatics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Robert Steele and PhD candidate Dan Dumbrell, is part of Professor Steele’s broader research programs investigating the impacts of emerging technologies on health and health care. 

Prof Steele says using new communications technologies to allow people to directly receive relevant and up-to-the-minute public health information could benefit the health of millions and change the paradigm of public health information dissemination.

He says that while most public health information is sought through online search engines, it has previously been found that relevant public health documents are not always successfully located and disseminated due to users’ search methods. 

“Traditional online methods of public health information dissemination, such as search engines, have a ‘pull’ characteristic which relies on consumers actively searching to find the right information. 

“Twitter has a distinct and potentially powerful ‘push’ characteristic in that it is members of the public who distribute public health information by forwarding messages from public health organisations to followers who have identified themselves as interested individuals.”

According to Professor Steele (pictured below), this provides a new way for public health organisations to both engage more directly with the public and leverage individuals’ networks of followers, which have ‘self-organised’ by topic of interest. Major social networks currently have hundreds of millions of users and continue to grow rapidly. 

An opportunity for government health agencies

The research, which examined a sample of more than 4,700 tweets from 114 Australian government, non-profit and for-profit health-related organisations, also found that government organisations were probably not maximising their potential influence in social media.  Despite having the greatest average number of followers and re-tweets, government organisations generated the lowest number of tweets across the sample.  

In addition, while researchers found that most major health conditions were present in the Twittersphere,there were some surprises in the proportions found and some were notably underrepresented.

“Four of the government’s eight [at the time the research was undertaken but now nineNational Health Priority Areas were underrepresented in our sample, including asthma, arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, injury prevention and control, and obesity. These conditions only made up 1.7 per cent of health-related tweets,” said Prof Steele.

“Government health messages are clearly seen as an authoritative source and worth following.  We don’t see all health priority areas under represented but the take away is that there is an opportunity for the Government to use Twitter more,” he said.   

Prof Steele said important public health information that may benefit from micro-blogs like Twitter could include communicable disease outbreaks, information about natural disasters, promotion of new treatments and clinical trials, and dietary and nutrition advice.
“When you look for information on a search engine, algorithms and computers determine the most important results. With social media networks, you have a ‘push’ mechanism, where interested individuals are directly alerted to public health information. You also have a prodigious network of users whose time and effort to find and follow relevant accounts, and to filter which information is forwarded or retweeted, represents a powerful aggregate human work effort.”

The research methodology and key findings

The researchers examined a sample of more than 4,700 tweets from 114 Australian government, non-profit and for-profit health-related organisations.

Each of the tweets was categorised according to the health condition mentioned, the type of information provided, whether a hyperlink was included, and whether there were any replies or retweets.

Non-profit organisations made up almost two-thirds of the group, and had a much higher average following than their for-profit counterparts.

The majority of tweets in the sample, 59 per cent, were non condition-specific, followed by tweets about mental health, cancer and lifestyle (fitness and nutrition).

For-profit organisation tweets were dominant in the maternity, pharmaceutical and dental areas, most likely because of their potential as a source of commercialisation or potential profit.  However, despite having the largest average number of tweets, for-profit organisations also had the lowest number of average followers, indicating consumers were more likely to reject sites they considered promotional or sales-based.

Non-profit Twitter accounts provided the majority of tweets in the sample, with a large number of fundraising and awareness-raising tweets.

Despite having a far lower average number of tweets, government accounts were found to be the most successful at disseminating public health information, with the greatest number of average followers and re-tweets. 

Success factors

There were a number of common characteristics to highly re-tweeted public health advice tweets. Actionable tweets, which provided readers with information to act upon in relation to their health, were highly successful, along with time relevance and relation to particular events, a personally directed style of language, and rhetorical questions. Interestingly, perceived acuteness of health risk and need for others to be informed also drove information dissemination. 

“The real-time insight Twitter gives us into exactly how consumers react to and spread public health information is unprecedented,” says Professor Steele. 

“With further research, it’s likely Twitter will change how we disseminate public health information online. In addition, our ability to analyse pathways, reach, and the identity of information recipients could provide new possibilities for analytical techniques and software tools to further improve public health information dissemination. 

Links to research:

Putting the Public into Public Health Information Dissemination: Social Media and Health-related Web Pages

For a full list of research papers by Prof Steele et al on this and related topics, go to:


Tags: health-infomatics, informatics, professor-robert-steele, public-health, research, social media, study, twitter, university-of-sydney,

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