Social media to drive disaster preparedness

Although most hospitals have response plans for natural disasters, chemical releases, epidemics, and biological events, many are not as prepared for other types of disasters, such as explosive or incendiary events, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Social media, already embedded in society, may be the solution to better preparing hospitals before, during, and after emergencies, according to a perspective article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

With more than 40 million Americans using social media websites multiple times a day, tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and other crowd-sourcing technologies could help hospitals prepare and respond to disastrous events, according to study authors.

"Clearly, social media are changing the way people communicate not only in their day-to-day lives, but also during disasters that threaten public health. Engaging with and using emerging social media may well place the emergency-management community, including medical and public health professionals, in a better position to respond to disasters," wrote Raina M. Merchant, Stacy Elmer, and Nicole Lurie in the article.

With lessons learned from disaster response during Hurricane Katrina, hospitals are looking for ways to better respond. For example, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, accused of being unprepared during Katrina, last week settled a lawsuit for $25 million, although it denied guilt.

The government has also joined the social media sphere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's @CDCemergency Twitter follower numbers have grown twenty-fold within the year, according to a University of Pennsylvania announcement. And during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services posted a "Mommycast" on YouTube and iTunes to provide the public with updates.

The article suggests the following ways to use social media:

  • Post emergency room wait times via RSS feed or tweets (already implemented at many hospitals) to help assess overloaded ERs
  • Use GPS check-in (e.g., Foursquare, Loopt) for emergency responders to detail their location and availability
  • Post images and texts to engage public response and support (e.g., real-time posts to help generate American Red Cross information)

The authors also warn of some challenges. For example, it's not always possible to know who is behind the tweets or posts, such as a scammer. Therefore, social media would require monitoring.

"Of course, social media cannot and should not supersede our current approaches to disaster-management communication or replace our public health infrastructure, but if leveraged strategically, they can be used to bolster current systems," said the article authors. "Now is the time to begin deploying these innovative technologies while developing meaningful metrics of their effectiveness and of the accuracy and usefulness of the information they provide."

For more information:
- read the NEJM article
- read the UPenn announcement