When the H1N1 virus -- or swine flu -- broke out, the National Institutes of Health started using Twitter posts to monitor the spread of the illness.
If misinformation was posted, NIH Information Specialist David Hale tried to track down the source. He also got a kick out of some of the tweets, such as one that referred to Sesame Street's Miss Piggy: "I bet this whole swine flu scare really has Kermit the Frog rethinking his relationship."
When the Food and Drug Administration issued a peanut recall, it set up a Twitter account (follow at FDCrecalls). Its following grew when the agency issued recalls for pistachios and Brussels sprouts, and it now has more than 10,000 followers, said Sanjay Koyani, head of Web communications for the FDA.
The role social media might play in health care was the subject of a series of panel discussions put together last week by Ozmosis, a social network for physicians, Clinovations, a consulting firm focused on health care, and Amplify Public Affairs.
Most of the speakers said the new tech tools are efficient ways to reach people between ages 18 and 34, since they are the most prolific social networkers.
But others pointed out that relying too much on health-care technology could leave people out. Those who need health information the most -- rural residents, seniors and low-income communities -- are the least likely to read a tweet about a virus outbreak, said Patricia Hinton Walker, a nursing professor at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda.
She pointed out that people between the ages of 35 and 58 rely more on traditional Web sites for health-related questions, and people over the age of 58 are more comfortable getting information via television and radio.
"We should be very careful about who we're trying to reach with what," she said.
Val Jones, a physician who runs Better Health, a blog network, agreed that doctors should be aware of their patients' information-gathering habits. "But they shouldn't still be relying only on mailing letters," she said.
By Kim Hart
The Washington Post
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