Students’ Den: Social media use by Deaprtments of Health in the US

It’s been a while, but finally the Students’ Den corner of our blog is being revived!

The following post is written by Dickie Wallace, who has been researching the use of social media by different departments of public health by adopting a state by state approach. Thank you Dickie!

If you are a Public Health Student and you would like to contribute to our Blog, please get in touch!


Looking at state-by-state social media use by Departments of Health in the United States.

If we think of government Health Departments as institutional enablers, advocates, and mediators of public health, we can see how they facilitate citizens finding health information and services as well as promote improved health behaviors and preventative measures towards ensuring a healthy populace.  And, to this end, social media have become an obvious means, with digital communication giving public health officials unprecedented tools to get messages out to their citizenry and also establish reciprocal communication.

How different health departments do at attaining these ideals, however, varies widely:  for the past three months, I’ve been surveying the social media use of State Departments of Health (SDH) across the fifty United States and can see that, while certain health communication strategies are a given (i.e., every SDH has webpages allowing access to reams of information), overall, the range in tactics varies quite widely.  So, using laptop computers and mobile phones to assess the web, social media, and mobile presence, I’ve been using three dozen categories for comparing what every SDH seems to deem as important and then how they choose to connect with their publics.

As of spring 2012, I’ve found dozen of patterns and hundreds of interesting quirks how social media are used, but I’ll just mention a few thoughts here.

Every one of the 50 states had something that could be considered that state’s representative Department of Health webpage.

  • A problem: many states have multiple webpages that reflect that state’s organizational structures. These pages sometimes replicate information or sometimes have information in one place but not in the other.

Over 70% of SDH’s have regularly updated Twitter accounts.

  • Of these, only one state SDH, Kansas, uses a Twitter feed directly its webpage.
  • Getting exact numbers of SDH’s tweeting can be difficult. Some Twitter accounts aren’t easy to find: Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health webpage doesn’t mention that they have Twitter account, you have to go looking for it.

Just about half of SDH’s have Facebook pages.  These are usually being used, like Twitter, for health-related updates with not much interaction.

Twenty-three states have a listing in Wikipedia.

  • Some are comprehensive overviews like Florida’s entry which gives its history, the public health matters it covers, and the various sub-departments in its structure.
  • Other entries are almost comically short descriptions like “Pennsylvania Department of Health is a cabinet-level agency in Pennsylvania.” While short, however, any entry is more effective than no entry when we consider how many people use Wikipedia as their first stop in an information search.

Only one state had a regularly updated blog: Massachusetts.

Some SDHs have clearly tried to accommodate the increasing numbers of Americans who access the web via only a mobile device.  But, these are still out-numbered by websites that are too crowded with too much (sometimes redundant) information to be read on anything less than a large desktop browser.

Every SDH website gives links to access video content, but what this access varies quite widely.

  • Some SDHs have embedded video health messages right on their first page, others give you links to a video subpage or a YouTube channel.

Thus far, I have found only two SDH’s with health content accessible via a downloadable app.

Comparing the digital presence of state SDHs side-by-side in a comprehensive catalog is instructive to identify best practices in web presentation and categorization as well as find those SDHs that use social media to communicate with their citizenry. I’m also seeing that the digital presence of many SDHs appears to reflect the internal logic of their organizations and the ad hoc practices therein, while the ultimate target audience, the citizenry, is left with difficult to navigate and sometimes obfuscated information. With mobile device use increasing, an SDH would have difficulty in addressing a sudden major health crisis if the majority of information seekers could barely navigate their sites.

When considering best practices, one has to recognize what can be done within the budget constraints of most state governmental departments.  Therefore, I’m also hoping to explain how departments can better allocate resources for the integration of their web, social media, and mobile to in order maximize opportunities to connect with their publics.

I won’t conclude this with anything reaching conclusions just yet as this is very much research-in-progress.  But, I do hope maybe my efforts will have sparked your interest and perhaps someone working in an SDH in one of the United States or in any country in the world might be willing to tell me what they think.  Or someone who has ever tried to find something on a SDH kind of site and failed? Or had a good experience? Comments and advice are very much welcomed!



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