Guest Post: Envisioning a More Social Future for Public Health

This is the first in a series of (hopefully) weekly guest posts from the fabulous members of the #hcsm community. Interested in writing a post for #hcsm? Email me. This week, my good friend Andrew Wilson tackles the complex topic of social media and public health.


Times have changed and there really is no going back. The only question now is how to best move forward. I cannot think of a better way to solve the challenges that we face than a transparent, open discussion where all parties can contribute their perspective and insight. That being the case, I am throwing the three questions below out to community to get input, ideas and, yes, help.

1. What should collaboration (in social media) between public health agencies and the broader public health community look like?

To date, social media has been largely used by public health agencies as a one-way channel to push public health messages. Real, two-way engagement is still largely the exception rather than the rule. However, the new digitally-powered social landscape that we live in demands that we make the conversations more inclusive. Everyone with valuable input needs to have the opportunity to add their voice and their value. However, I personally still struggle with how to best systematize this information and idea sharing so that it is considered an integral and irreplaceable part of the process. For me, #hcsm represents a perfect case study of the unrealized potential of better collaboration. For example, imagine how much better and, potentially more effective, social media campaigns could be if public health agencies could bring their ideas to #hcsm for feedback PRIOR to launch. Is this realistic, what would this look like?

2. How do you envision the federal government being most effective in its use of social media?

This is really not an either/ or question. There are many potential answers depending on the mission of the agency, the circumstances and the platforms. However, it is certainly a question worth asking. Being successful in social media takes time and resources (and arguably a not insignificant degree of passion). If we accept these premises, then the federal government should naturally focus on those areas where it adds the most value and where its unique position can be leveraged to its maximum impact. Effectiveness, however, is mostly in the eye of the beholder and input from state and local agencies, public health professionals and the public at large must be taken into account if we want to make this work. So, where do you see the federal government’s role in the co-evolution of social media and public health?

3. How can we collectively address and document the role of social media in behavior change?

Moving people’s opinion of social media from a tool for “awareness raising” to an accepted mechanism for influence behavioral is something I have been thinking about very seriously about since Alexandra Bornkessel wrote a very thoughtful post on this issue more than 6 months ago. Undoubtedly, there are some very smart people researching and presenting evidence for how social media can influence behavior – B.J. Fogg and Jen S. McCabe jump to mind here. On the other hand, when I asked James Fowler, during his talk at SXSW last year, about how social media could be used as a tool to help address public health concerns such as childhood obesity and smoking cessation, his response seemed to leave room for doubt. Making a rock solid, persuasive case to leadership about the value of better integration of social media into the work of the federal government demands a portfolio of well documented and well presented evidence. This discussion, about the utility and value of social media, is going on across public health (see Social Media Grows Up – Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit) but I would argue that we need a more systematic approach to building the case. Where and how do you see this happening? Is there a real need for this? Who should take the lead in this?

These questions are some of the issues I try to work through every day – and I have no chance of solving any of them on my own. Not only are they complex and difficult but they cannot be solved by any one party. They need consensus understanding and action. Most importantly, however, these are some of the questions that must be addressed as we try to build a more social future for public health. Please join the conversation and let’s work on these questions together.


Andrew Wilson, along with Read Holman and others, was formerly part of the HHS Center for New Media where most of his work focused on the web and new media response to H1N1. Currently, Andrew works for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, one of the agencies within Department of Health and Human Services.

Note: the views and opinions expressed in this post are Andrew’s alone and do not represent official opinions of HHS or SAMHSA.

  1. Great post Andrew! I absolutely agree that cross-organizational collaboration is one of the greatest untapped opportunities for #hcsm. Platforms like the All Partners Access Network for emergency and disaster response ( the value of virtual collaboration, but I think they also show the necessity for an organization or group to identify the common interests and take ownership to provide tools and/or community management to make the network successful.

    On the behavioral change topic, I think #hcsm has to change our behaviors as organizations before we can hope to truly have an impact on public behavior. So many Government organizations are expending exhaustive amounts of time and resources to “measure” the impact of #hcsm (and by that I mean views, clicks, and followers) but I think the most incredible value of #hcsm in this early stage is in what we can learn about our audiences. From there, the challenge is driving behavioral changes within our organizations to become more responsive to audience needs.

  2. Andrew,

    I love that you framed your post with questions–I think that’s a great way to show the openness and willingness of people to figure all of this out. I find some people are afraid to ask questions–yet asking questions helps us get to where we need to be. (Anywho–that’s another covo. 😉

    Appreciate the link too–awareness has its time and place, but I feel it’s often an over-relied on “default” reaction in public health. Once you build your community or identify your stakeholders or get your information out there: then the question becomes: Now what? Even as a #hcsm community, now that we’ve all connected: What are we going to do? The moderators of the #4change chat are facing this same question as a community and it’s one govs, .coms, and .orgs will all face in their programs. Awareness is a step–not an ending.

    Last week was the CDC conference in Atlanta. On the last day of the conference over lunch, a rogue group of us practitioners from on both sides (say 30 people?) got together to talk about the public health social media agenda (i.e. What should it be? Is it needed? Why is it needed? What questions need to be answered? etc.). This gets to your third question–so I too am interested in what others think, esp. the #hcsm folks.

    PS: Love the shout outs to BJ Fogg and Jen S. McCabe, both are doing great work that we should all study. THAT is the type of work I would want to build upon.

  3. Hi Andrew,
    Your post got me to think even beyond the question of “how can youth health merge with social media”. At this point, as on of few advocates for its use in the Northern Territory of Australia I’m still at the stage of ‘awareness’. I’m still trying hard to bring social media into the public health domain.
    As Alex said: What should it be? I hope that through piloting a project we’ve started, we would be able to formulate and good model.
    Thank you for this post.


  1. August 24th, 2010
  2. August 24th, 2010
  3. August 24th, 2010
    Trackback from : Twitted by AndrewPWilson

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