UF studies explore how public health professionals use Twitter for professional development, public education

Public health practitioners are actively using Twitter as a platform for networking and development, allowing them to overcome some barriers to professional growth, such as reduced staffing, according to research by a University of Florida team. Public health professionals are also frequently using personal Twitter accounts to disseminate health information to the public.

The findings appear in a pair of studies published in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

Many public health organizations, including some state health departments, block social media sites from workplace computers, said Mark Hart, Ed.D., the study’s lead author and a clinical assistant professor in the department of epidemiology in PHHP and the College of Medicine and PHHP’s director of online learning. The research team, which also included Nichole Stetten, a UF public health doctoral student in social and behavioral sciences, wanted to find out how public health workers might be using Twitter in light of these restrictions.

Using Twitter’s keyword search, the researchers identified 200 public health professionals who use the platform. The researchers invited them to participate in a survey that asked questions about how they use Twitter for professional development and networking.

Participants said they used Twitter as an informal type of continuing education unit, or CEU, and as a way to connect and collaborate with colleagues, despite geographical barriers. Many are also using the social media platform to conduct informal research and crowdsource ideas for work.

“What was most surprising to me was the amount of public health-related tweets these public health professionals were tweeting from their personal accounts,” Hart said. “I think this shows that people do want to reach out from their environment and find like-minded people in public health to connect with, or are so passionate they are willing to take their own time to share public health information with all on Twitter.”

In the second study, the team analyzed the content of more than 15,000 tweets made by public health practitioners and found that 11,000 of those tweets were health related.

“When we look at health communication and how we can help people, say during a health emergency or just to pass along general public health information, the age when the public got information from flyers, radio or even television news, is over for many so we need to adapt and meet people where they are,” Hart said. “Public health workers are often on the front lines of keeping us safe, individually and as a society. I think we need to revisit the rules on what tools we allow them to use professionally to connect with people in the field and the public at-large.”