Monday, August 17, 2015

Medical journalists and health news on Twitter

What was the latest health news you encountered in your Twitter feed? Was it one of the three Ds?  Diet...Drugs…Disease?  If the tweet came from a health journalist, it likely focused on disease and treatment rather than wellness and prevention.  My study of 25 top-followed U.S. health journalists’ Twitter accounts found prescription drugs, the medical industry, and specific diseases dominating the discussion. Only 10 percent of health-related tweets featured diet or exercise. But at the same time, the journalists interacted through live chats and retweeted conversations with followers, offering the potential to convey prevention strategies and improve health literacy.

The findings also revealed interesting distinctions between physician-journalists and non-MDs and differences related to gender.  Disease dominated the doctors’ Twitter streams while the non-MDs focused more on drugs and the pharmaceutical business.  When doctors tweeted about drugs, it was largely through a prevention frame.  They never mentioned exercise or diet in terms of prevention, but instead associated disease prevention with drugs.  This may reflect industry marketing strategies to physicians.  Non-MD female journalists, on the other hand, did connect diet and exercise to prevention in their tweets. 

Given the public’s thirst for health information online, medical journalists’ tweets provide yet another avenue for acquiring that knowledge.  As a whole, the findings suggest that journalists are carrying some mainstream media practices over to Twitter, while also adopting social-media-specific engagement and communication in health news journalism.  

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