University research has found that social networks like Twitter have a more powerful role in disseminating public health information than search engines.
The research was carried out by Professor Robert Steele and PhD candidate Dan Dumbrell at the University of Sydney.
"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," Steele, head of discipline and chair of health informatics at the university's Faculty of Health Sciences, said in a statement.
"Twitter has a powerful characteristic in that it is members of the public who distribute public health information by forwarding messages from public health organisations to their followers."
The research included analysis of more than 4700 tweets from 114 government, profit and not-for-profit health-related organisations.
Tweets were sorted according to the health condition they mentioned, what information was provided in the tweet, tweets and retweets and whether hyperlinks were provided.
Not-for-profit government organisations made up two-thirds of the researched organisations.
A total of 59 per cent of tweets were about non-specific conditions, followed by tweets about mental health, cancer, and fitness and nutrition.
Steele said social media has enabled public health organisations to engage more directly with the public and could benefit from disseminating information about communicable disease outbreaks, natural disasters 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," Steele said.
"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."
However, the researchers found four priority health conditions made up only 1.7 per cent of health-related tweets, including asthma, arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, injury prevention and control and obesity.
Government organisations were found to have a lower than average number of tweets but were the most successful at disseminating public health information and had the largest number of retweets and average followers.
"The real-time insight Twitter gives us into exactly how consumers react to and spread public health information is unprecedented," Steele said.
"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."
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