Digital media could work as tool to improve health

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - After a desperate mother in South Wales, UK, posted a video of her baby having a seizure on Facebook, one of her friends provided the diagnosis that had eluded the boy’s doctor.

The discovery that Evan Owens suffers from reflex anoxic seizures, a rare but treatable disease, provided a happy ending and is just one example of the public health benefits of digital media, says a new perspective in the Journal of Public Health.

Evan's story, published in the UK's Daily Mail, illustrates how people are turning to the Internet for healthcare advice and how important it is for healthcare professionals to participate in the discussion, the perspective's lead author, Amelia Burke-Garcia, told Reuters Health. (The Daily Mail story is online here:

“There’s always the risk of misinformation or false information floating around on these channels,” Burke-Garcia said. “The fact that people are using them demonstrates the need for healthcare professionals to be active and share information in these environments.”

Public health professionals are beginning to use digital media as a research tool and to deliver messages about everything from obesity to AIDS, the study says. “But there are many other opportunities that can be explored especially because existing platforms will evolve and new ones will emerge,” Burke-Garcia said.

She runs the Center for Digital Strategy and Research at Westat, a research corporation in Rockville, Maryland. She and Dr. Gabriel Scally, from the University of the West of England in Bristol, analyzed academic and online literature to identify future directions for digital media in public health research and communications.

“Digital media is set to revolutionize the way in which health information is communicated and gathered,” the researchers write in their perspective. But, they say, despite numerous studies, there has been little “effective and meaningful evaluation.”

Digital media is being used to track disease spread and mobilize responses. Healthcare organizations have used it to frame debates and communicate with wide segments of the population.

One future trend the authors identify is what they call “buzz monitoring,” listening in on public online conversations about health issues, like smoking or obesity, in an effort to tailor future public health announcements.

Another use of digital media connects healthcare providers and consumers in online meeting places that bring people together for a variety of purposes. As an example, Burke-Garcia said, public health workers might talk to “Mommy and Me” groups about vaccinations.

Recent research found specially created Facebook groups worked to encourage gay men to reach out for information about home HIV/AIDS testing (see Reuters Health story of September 2, 2013 here:

Oyinlola Oyebode, a public health researcher at University College London, told Reuters Health in an email that she has seen firsthand the power of digital media in health research. Reports of vomiting on Facebook helped her team identify an additional 80 cases in one disease outbreak, she said.

In addition, she recently ran a study examining text-message reminders and breast cancer screening. Women reminded by text were more likely to attend screening appointments, she said.

Oyebode wrote a commentary published with Burke-Garcia and Scally’s perspective.

Social scientist Peter John Aspinall also was not involved in the current study but wrote his own commentary. He told Reuters Health in an email that “the more routine adoption of these technologies may represent something of a slow march given the substantial pressures on already stretched public health resources.”

Aspinall, from the UK’s University of Kent, warned that web-based disease surveillance “can get the trends wrong because of the lack of contextual information.” For example, he said, Google Flu Trends overestimated the number of Americans stricken with flu last year.

“This has led international experts in disease surveillance to conclude that flu-tracking techniques based on the mining of web data should be seen to complement rather than substitute for traditional epidemiological surveillance networks,” he said.

Asked about digital media’s propensity for fear mongering, Burke-Garcia said new media is no different than old when it comes to whipping up panic.

“I don’t think digital media creates fear where other channels don’t,” she said.

“There are downsides to the speed and the ubiquity of messages in digital. You can say that the channel creates fear. The channel also creates opportunities to combat that fear.”

Though Oyebode has embraced digital media, she sees potential drawbacks, particularly if public health announcements keep people in their chairs or on their couches in front of screens.

“It might be an effective way to encourage people to make healthy lifestyle changes or to help them connect and find social support during a difficult time,” she said. “And there are some particular instances, for example relating to sexual health, where it might be easier for people to seek information . . . online than face to face,” Oyebode added.

“However, those developing online interventions should think about how much sedentary time their intervention will encourage.”

SOURCES:, and Journal of Public Health, January 2014.