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
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: http://dailym.ai/1eWaEl6.)
"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
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
"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 Sept. 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.
[to top of second column]
Oyebode wrote a commentary published with Burke-Garcia and
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."
Journal of Public
Health, January 2014.
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