Following the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, response teams utilized an open-source, Web-based platform known as Ushahidi to cull information from text messages, blog posts, videos, phone calls, and pictures and create a near real-time crisis map. Similarly, in 2009 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used social media tools to update the public on the latest information regarding the H1N1 virus.
Noting these examples and the growing number of people using social media, a group of researchers are urging public health officials to begin integrating these tools into emergency-preparedness plans and developing meaningful metrics to measure the effectiveness of the technologies and the accuracy and usefulness of the information they provide. In an article published online today in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers write:
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. The effectiveness of our public health emergency system relies on routine attention to preparedness, agility in responding to daily stresses and catastrophes, and the resilience that promotes rapid recovery. Social media can enhance each of these component efforts.
Authors' recommendations on how health agencies could strategically leveraging social media to enhance disaster preparedness and response plan include:
- Taking GPS-linked mobile phone apps like Foursquare and Loopt into the arena of crisis preparedness by having off-duty nurses or paramedics who "check in" at a venue broadcast their professional background and willingness to help during nearby emergencies.
- Creation of Web-based "buddy" systems to enable friends and neighbors to keep tabs on at-risk people during weather emergencies like heat waves and blizzards and connect them with social services and medical care — staving off dire consequences like the hundreds of deaths that occurred during the 1995 Chicago heat weave.
- Greater use of RSS feeds and mobile apps that provide emergency room wait times and census data, as a tool for helping public health planners gauge strain on the health care system and divert patients to facilities with sufficient resources during a disaster.