New media technologies such as smart phones, social networks and Internet applications are not only changing the way we communicate, but changing the way we live our lives. And at the heart of it lie big opportunities for health agencies to help improve health.

Jay Bernhardt speaking to NPHIC symposium attendee

Jay Bernhardt, professor of health education and behavior at the University of Florida and keynote speaker at the 2013 National Public Health Information Coalition Symposium, discusses public health communication with a symposium attendee. Photo by David Fouse

“Digital health will be revolutionary,” said Jay Bernhardt, professor of health education and behavior at the University of Florida and director of the Center for Digital Health and Wellness. It will be as transformative as vaccines and other innovations have in the past, he predicted during his address at last week’s National Public Health Information Coalition Symposium in Chicago.

Health communications is now digital and social, Bernhardt said, pointing to a shift in how health professionals and agencies are increasingly doing their jobs. Studies show health departments are embracing new media with a majority of state health departments active online. Local health departments, however, show considerably lower adoption, a disparity likely due to fewer resources, and less expertise and staff time, he said.

Still, Bernhardt is optimistic. “The glass is at least half-full,” he said, when it comes to health department use of tools such as Facebook, YouTube and other applications and technologies.

According to the research, among local health departments using Twitter, having a public information officer on staff, greater frequency of tweets and serving a larger population are indicative of having more followers.

New media requires strategy

“Social media has grown enormously,” said Bernhardt, and all age groups are using it. It’s the most common thing people do online, and gadget ownership is up, he said, citing that mobile cell phone ownership among U.S. adults is nearing 90 percent.

There is an extraordinary opportunity for the public health community to use these tools to help reach public health goals, but he recommended developing strategy as you would with other public health communications.

“New media is a tactic that requires strategic planning to use correctly and effectively,” Bernhardt said.

Who is your intended audience? What are your goals and objectives and outcomes? What products and messages will be used? What resources are available, including budget, expertise and staff time? Answering these kinds of questions, he said, are critical to measuring your success.

Where to start? Bernhardt recommended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Media Works tool to help develop a social media strategy.

Mobile: the next big thing

Beyond social media, “I think mobile is the big game changer,” he said. “It’s the Swiss army knife of public health communications.” He pointed to text messaging as a channel by which health agencies are already delivering prenatal care tips to expectant moms, connecting teens and adults to smoking cessation tools and support, and providing other health education, and he said there is growing literature showing this works.

And Bernhardt pointed to mobile Web, and said that more and more people are accessing information on mobile devices than on their desktops. And as far as reach and immediacy, he said “95 percent of text messages are read within three minutes of being received.”

Health departments will have to develop mobile-friendly websites, he argued, with responsive design so Web content can be easily read on browsers on any device.

Bernhardt recommended attendees attend Digital Health Communication Exchange, or DHCX, now in its third year and set for early summer 2014 in Washington, D.C., as a great platform for diving deeper into digital health.