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Doctors, health care groups use Twitter to reach public

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Politicians do it. So do celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher. Now doctors and health care organizations are doing it: using Twitter to promote health, provide swine flu updates and capsulize the latest res...

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Politicians do it. So do celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher.

Now doctors and health care organizations are doing it: using Twitter to promote health, provide swine flu updates and capsulize the latest research findings.

Many believe Twitter will be an especially valuable tool in a public health emergency.

"It gives us access to a huge audience," said Kate Fowlie, communications officer for Contra Costa Health Services. "A lot of people use it, so we need to be there so we can make sure that our information gets heard."

Twitter's adoption by those in the health care field demonstrates how it is evolving from entirely frivolous postings, or tweets, to some serious content.

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For those who are not yet tweeting, Twitter is a free social networking service. Users post tweets of no more than 140 characters; they are snippets of information that are meant to be read quickly.

Participants decide who they want to follow and can read that person's tweets from their computer or capable cell phones.

What's up?

Twitter began as a platform for people to answer one simple question:

What are you doing now?

Many people still use it primarily for that purpose, broadcasting minor details of their personal lives, from what they ate for breakfast to their gym workouts or that great song they just heard.

Winfrey, who has more than 1.9 million followers, recently tweeted about seeing Nelson Mandela, "who looks fantastic at 91," and taking her employees on a two-week "thank-you" cruise.

Kutcher, who has Winfrey beat with 2.8 million followers, posted photos of his new favorite shoes and tweeted about coming home after a long day and finding 120 e-mails in his inbox. "I want to hide under my pillow," he wrote.

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Tweets are a little more serious in the health field. Many health professionals began thinking about using Twitter when the swine flu outbreak hit in April.

Dr. Rahul Parikh, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, decided Twitter would enable him to point his patients to reliable information so "they wouldn't get worried unnecessarily."

He used Twitter to send links to Web-based articles about swine flu that he found enlightening. He also informed patients of Kaiser flu clinics and let the patients know when he would be out of the office.

His 59 followers did not learn about his personal life. "I don't think people would find it that interesting that I'm working out," he said.

Parikh has told his patients not to tweet him with personal medical questions because of privacy concerns. Such questions are best handled through private e-mails, he said.

Empowers patients

Parikh, though, does believe Twitter can be an important tool to help empower patients to make better decisions about their health care. He recently posted links to information about sunscreen, bathtub accidents that injure 43,000 children a year, and surprising medical myths.

"My goal is to try and find ways to make health care more accessible to patients," he said. "This is one way to do that."

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Contra Costa Health Services also began using Twitter when swine flu emerged. Communications officer Fowlie updated the number of deaths and confirmed cases, school closures and tips on how to avoid getting sick.

She continues to tweet regularly for the department's 312 followers.

She recently posted details on upcoming immunization clinics, tips on dealing with stress, and ways to avoid heat exhaustion.

"It raises people's consciousness about what's happening," she said. "We've integrated it into our overall communication strategy."

The department also has a Facebook page and Dr. William Walker, county health services director, often does podcasts about health topics.

Within two weeks of swine flu's arrival, leaders of the Alameda County Health Department realized Twitter would be a good way to reach young, mobile residents, who have been among those hardest hit by the virus, said spokeswoman Sherris Willis. The department is not yet using Twitter, but hopes to begin by September.

"There are campaigns that happen throughout the year that we'd like to keep people aware of," Willis said.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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