Leveraging the power of social media may help the nation reach the Healthy People 2020 goal of vaccinating 80 percent of teens to protect them from the human papillomavirus (HPV). New research from Dr. Philip Massey, an assistant professor at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health, offers insight into how health care professionals can more effectively use Twitter to communicate with parents about the value, importance, and availability of the HPV vaccine.
Each year, more than 31,000 women and men are diagnosed with cancers linked to an HPV infection. The vaccine is the only known form of prevention. Yet, only 40 percent of teens 13 to 17 (the ages when the vaccine is routinely administered) are receiving the vaccine, compared to the more than 80 percent vaccinated against meningitis and diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, vaccines routinely administered at this same age.
“We conducted our research to determine how to close this gap,” said Dr. Massey, who specializes in health communication and online/social media use. “To begin with, more parents are using social media to access health information.” A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that 79 percent of parents use social media to get valuable information and approximately 72 percent of adults use the internet to learn about health issues.
“In addition,” Dr. Massey added, “other research indicates that a recommendation from a physician carries the most weight when it comes to parents deciding to get the HPV vaccine for a teen.”
Combining these factors, Dr. Massey and his team reviewed all tweets related to the HPV vaccine between 2014 and 2015 – of more than 190,000 tweets, 20,451 were from health care professionals and 16,867 tweets were intended for parents, and 1,233 tweets overlapped both groups. The results were published in the February 22 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease.
While it was great to see the amount of discussion around the topic, it became clear that health care experts and parents were likely to send and retweet very different types of messages on Twitter. “For the health care professionals, the most popular tweets were about research findings,” Dr. Massey said, with a study on the cost-effectiveness of vaccines topping the list.
“Among the parents, tweets focused on side-effects, women, and girls were the messages most likely to go viral,” he said. In both cases, however, tweet popularity spiked around disease awareness days, suggesting an opportunity for both groups to improve communication about HPV vaccines at key times of year, such as World Cancer Day (February 4).
“The study results helped us understand how new media tools — especially Twitter — can help us further public health goals,” Dr. Massey said. “Health care professionals can be encouraged to speak more directly to parents using messages that center on storytelling, accessible terms such as mom, dad, daughter, and son, and link messages to straightforward evidence. The American Academy of Pediatrics has posted a sample list of tweets for just this purpose.”
Lots of research shows that parents are concerned about HPV side effects and the possible stigma associated with giving an adolescent a vaccine to prevent a sexually transmitted disease. Dr. Massey explained that his research shows that “social media may serve as an under-utilized and under-explored way of addressing these issues and increasing awareness among parents about the benefits of the HPV vaccine.”
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