How Twitter can Promote Public Health


Clay Shirky writes “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” Before your public health organization adopts every type of social media in existence, first identify its goals. What do you want your program to achieve? Once this is clear then choose the appropriate social media. Heather Mansfield, author of Social Media for Social Good, suggests measuring your progress using tracking tools like your or to learn what works and what doesn’t, make adjustments, and repeat as necessary. And it will be necessary. Not to worry. That is part of the process. The more you engage with social media, the more you will learn and get out of it.

Microblogging sites such as Twitter have seen an increase in users year over year (Social Media Update 2014). Twitter has been used in whole range of purposes from making jokes to saving lives.



Here are some effective uses of microblogging and examples of how they promote public health.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response has its own Twitter account to help US residents plan and prepare for all sorts of adverse events. It’s summer so recently CDC Emergency has tweeted advice about how to prepare for seasonal threats like tornadoes, heat stroke, and wildfires. CDCs goals are to decrease negative impact on health as well as reduce emergency care for preventable events freeing up medical personnel for more urgent matters.


Twitter can also be used to decrease emergency response times. In 2013, news of the Boston marathon bombings spread faster on Twitter than through traditional news outlets. As a result, hospitals and medical workers were able to prepare and respond faster than if they waited to receive the news through traditional media outlets.


Health Interventions

Image courtesy of soldiersmediacenter at

Image courtesy of soldiersmediacenter at

The prevalence of mental illness is higher in military personnel and veterans than in civilians. Nurses at the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society have developed an innovative strategy of using Twitter and other social media to provide mental healthcare to veterans. Nurses follow patients on Twitter and then remain on the lookout for dark tweets. Vigilant medical workers can intervene immediately by calling a patient or stopping by their house to chat. Sometimes the best interventions are not medical but social. Medical personnel are leveraging social media to monitor patients and implement social interventions as a form of treatment.


Exhibit New Technology

Organizations can keep customers and the general public up to date on product development and release. Health and social organizations can take a page from Apple’s marketing playbook and create a demand for their products and services. EnChroma developed and is now selling glasses that allow colorblind people to see color! Check out one of their customers recent tweets below. EnChroma actually retweeted this video on their site too, which is a smart move because it adds variety to their content.


Promote Events

Last Sunday was AIDS Walk San Francisco. It is well organized and well attended but this doesn’t happen by chance. The success of the event is attributable to a well oiled social marketing campaign. Organizers use Twitter before, during, and after the event keep things running smoothly. Prior to the AIDS Walk, organizers build awareness about their cause and promote the upcoming event. Participants and organizers share their experiences, pictures, and videos throughout the day. Afterwards, organizers thank participants, spotlight sponsors, and announce fundraising milestones.


No matter how you use microblogging, Heather Mansfield writes “your ultimate goal should be to inspire action and reaction from your followers.” Responses can include anything from reading your tweet or clicking a link in your tweet, to retweeting your message to their followers, donating, or participating in your events.


5 thoughts on “How Twitter can Promote Public Health

  1. Hi Jillian,
    Fantastic post. I love the way you framed the post around the readings – and the central tenet that social media must be used to promote the goals of whatever organization/company/individual is using it. Then, you proceed to give a really wide variety of interesting examples of how this can be done. Clearly a lot of time and effort went into preparing all of these examples, and I really appreciated them. I really learned a LOT. I especially loved the idea of having nurses follow the tweets of military patients with mental health concerns. What a smart and thoughtful way of watching out for people. How did you find out about this? I wonder if it is being done widely. I was also particularly moved by the EnChroma video (now I want to get those glasses for a good friend who is color blind!) that the company retweeted – and it really made the point about how retweeting can be such an effective tool if done strategically. I am a bit of a Twitter “doubter,” and I went to the sites you mentioned to check them out. I am still troubled that, for example, I had to read the rantings of a lunatic who was writing to @CDCemergency, but I also see that there can be tremendous benefit. I also liked that you had images to go with each example, and I liked how you had a direct clickable video for the EnChroma video – that made my experience smooth.
    The only constructive critique I can think of is for the images. The images seemed a little big and got in the way of the reading experience because I had to keep scrolling so much. Perhaps using the thumbnail size would work well for the different examples (although for the aids walk pics, a larger size is nice because it is so fun and colorful). The CDC image was really hard to read (even on their site), so in general, just isn’t the best image. But, I know it is very hard to find images that match the content.
    Overall, excellent job. I feel like I really benefited from reading your post. Thank you!

  2. This is a very informative post and you’ve used the images really effectively. Not only have you given really good examples of how to use Twitter for public health, but you have also highlighted interesting Twitter accounts to follow. You’ve managed to pick a few uses from Phil Baumann’s list of 140 Health Care Uses for Twitter: and shown how they each is using Twitter to meet a specific organisational goal – reinforcing your point that this is necessary in order to make good use of social media.

  3. The CDC tornado emergency preparedness tweet is a good example of piggy-back marketing. The second hashtag on the tweet is for a truly terrible B-move (Sharknado 3) which was a trending topic on twitter when it aired last week. The CDC emergency preparedness folks were very smart to tie their public service announcement to this popular, and related, hashtag, because it meant that many more people saw the tweet than just the people who follow @CDCemergency.

    There are some problems with using Twitter to spread the word about a disaster in the moment. I once re-tweeted a tornado warning, not noticing that the warning was more than 20 hours old. (In my defense, I only check twitter at most twice a day.) So the spread of information may not be as evenly distributed as you might want. I doubt that anyone is suggesting that we replace tornado siren with Twitter any time soon.

    Overall this is a great post, and you’ve made good use of the visuals.

  4. Hi Jillian,

    Wow! I echo everyone’s feedback about the broad coverage of the different ways Twitter is used to inform, promote, and raise awareness (and funding) for health. I had a little trouble in my research finding different approaches to analyzing data. Your story about the use of Twitter to offer support and serve as a surveillance system for assessing suicide risk is really interesting. This seems like something that could be studied in some way as part of program evaluation. I came across a recent review of analysis of Twitter activities in Canada, and thought I would share the citation below. Basically, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Determinant of Health (DOH) did an analysis 24 hours of tweets containing “#health”, categorized them in one of twelve categories, and published that finding. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the leading categories for tweets were health services (e.g. related to costs and insurance), personal health and social support, and health education. I found the article interesting in helping me think about the type of value nonprofits should consider providing and profiling to help meet some of these needs, as well as to advance organizational and public health objectives.

    To add to an earlier comment about pictures. I thought they were really impactful. To help with length, perhaps try to play with the wrap text settings by clicking on the image. You can display images to one side and the text to the other. Hope this helps.

    Great job!

    Donald, L, and Booth RG (September 30, 2012). Health tweets: and exploration of health promotion on Twitter. Online J Issues Nurs. Accessed from:

  5. Jillian, I agree with everyone above in that the information in this post is very useful and nicely laid out. I personally like that you used full-sized photos, and don’t mind scrolling. I’m someone who doesn’t like thumbnails, because sometimes it’s distracting to be redirected to another page just to see an image included in a post. Sometimes the link even opens in the same window, and then you have to go back and find your place again. Your use of bolded text, page breaks, and images is all really great.

    I really don’t have any criticisms for this post, and I’m also pretty much repeating what everyone has already said! I’d also like to know how you found the information about monitoring veterans. I think it’s really cool that nurses are willing to put in that effort to monitor the social media of their patients. Maybe there’s a way to set up an alert on any at-risk patients throughout the US to make it easier to treat unstable patients.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s