Stories about: public health

Yes, PCPs can help youth with smoking, but can we get incentives to align?

Teen girl smoking cropped-shutterstock_108536432Claire McCarthy, MD, has been a primary care pediatrician and writer for more than 20 years. She blogs for the Huffington Post, Boston.com and the Children’s pediatric health blog, Thriving. She practices at the Children’s Hospital Primary Care Center. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.

When I read about the report from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force saying that pediatricians can “move the needle” when it comes to youth smoking, I had a few different reactions.

My first reaction was:  Cool! I don’t want youth to smoke. We all know the health problems it causes. It’s good to know that we can make a difference.

My second reaction, as I thought about it more, was:  Duh. Of course we can make a difference. We primary care pediatricians are perfectly positioned to influence the health behaviors of youth. We have relationships with them and their parents. We see them regularly, we have the opportunity to build trust and to get to know and understand them. We talk to them about all aspects of their health and well-being. While they don’t always listen to us, there’s always the chance they will.

And then, as I thought about it even more, my reaction was:  Is anyone going to help us do it?

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Mapping obesity with Facebook

What you like on Facebook might say something about how obese your neighborhood is. (Dry Martini/Wikimedia Commons)
If one of my Facebook friends were to look through my list of “likes,” they’d find that I’m interested in music, cars, science and photography, among other things (and not necessarily in that order).

But if a researcher were to look across Boston at what people who are like me like—and post and share—on Facebook, a snapshot of data could tell them something else: roughly how obese metro Boston is.

That’s essentially what John Brownstein, PhD, and Rumi Chunara, PhD, concluded in a study recently published in the journal PLoS ONE. In it, they combined Facebook interest data—an aggregate of what people “like,” post on their timeline or share on others’ timelines—with health survey data to geographically correlate activity or television interests with obesity rates. 

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Participatory surveillance in public health: Sharing is caring

Sharing via social media is a great opportunity for collecting better public health data and encouraging healthy behavior changes. (bengrey/Flickr)

We humans are sharing creatures. We talk about ourselves, what we think, what we know. If we weren’t like this, cocktail parties would be really boring, and Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t exist.

Nor would health care. At the most basic level, health care relies on give-and-take between patients and doctors—patients sharing their symptoms and concerns with doctors, and doctors sharing their knowledge with patients.

The same holds true for public health. Prevention and control efforts require lots of patients and doctors to share information so that public health agencies know where to target their resources.

But the give-and-take in public health is often slow and cannot always detect conditions or complications at rates that reflect reality. And usually it’s one-way—from the patient or public to surveyors.

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Digital disease detection: Public health by the “web kids”

In his essay, “We, the Web Kids,” Polish poet and pundit Piotr Czerski writes: “We don’t use the Internet…we live on the Internet and along it…communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.”

As Czerski emphasizes, we want the option of “here and now, without waiting for the file to download.” We (myself included) expect immediacy. So in my role as a public health advocate in the digital age, waiting for an official infectious disease outbreak report to come weeks after the outbreak started—as often happens with traditional reporting methods—is unacceptable. Earlier detection of disease outbreaks means earlier response—and more lives saved. This video produced by NPR illustrates the “web kid” mindset when it comes to public health:

Such thinking lay at the core of the first International Conference on Digital Disease Detection, brought together last month by HealthMap of Children’s Hospital Boston and funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

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Tweeting in the time of cholera

Improving or maintaining access to clean drinking water is the best way to prevent a cholera epidemic. Twitter could prove an excellent way to help stop one. (Julien Harneis/Flickr)

It was after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake that mobile-friendly social media services like Twitter and Ushahidi came into their own as disaster management and relief tools. With the nation’s already unsteady infrastructure destroyed, these tools helped speed the deployment of people and supplies to where they were needed by giving relief workers on-the-ground intelligence about what was happening, what was needed and where in nearly real time.

With hindsight, Twitter and other informal data sources could also have sped up efforts to halt the spread of one of the disaster’s most feared aftermaths – cholera.

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Tapping crowds for science: From galaxies to diabetes

Photo: ausnahmezustand/Flickr

What do a project cataloging pictures of galaxies, an RNA folding game, and a call for people with diabetes to contribute data all have in common?

Each is part of a new revolution in science. Called “citizen science,” this revolution takes science out of traditional academic or industrial environments and into the population at large, asking the general public to take part in activities that further particular areas of research.

Citizen science projects tap the aggregate computing power of crowds to help collect or analyze huge data sets, running the gamut from online games (e.g., FoldIt, EteRNA) to screen savers that make use of your computer while it’s asleep (e.g., SETI@home) to projects asking people to count or categorize images from large-scale astronomy projects (e.g., GalaxyZoo, Stardust@home). Some even try to reduce animal-vehicle collisions on the nation’s roadways by cataloging and mapping roadkill.

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Google searches: Real health behaviors in real time

Did the "S-CHIP tax" really motivate people to quit smoking? (Photo: AaronC/Flickr)

In April 2009, the U.S. federal cigarette excise tax was raised from $0.39 to $1.01 per pack as part of Congress’s reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. This well-intentioned “SCHIP tax” was meant to encourage people to quit smoking.

But a different story emerges from an analysis of Google searches.

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