Social Media, Health Care and The 2013 Government Shutdown

from News at on October 30, 2014 at 11:43AM

The October, 2013, U.S. government shutdown cut off federally-funded health-related programs and services across the country as well as those agencies’ social media channels.

In a study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), a team of LDI-connected researchers analyze patterns of social media disruptions and use during the 2013 Government shutdown that impacted a broad range of federally funded health care services across the country.

The study was co-authored by Penn Social Media Lab Director and LDI Senior Fellow Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP; Penn Medicine Health Innovation Center Executive Director and LDI Senior Fellow David Asch, MD, MBA; and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar and LDI Fellow Charlene Wong, MD.

Chaotic 2013 shutdown
As it was happening, the widespread health-related impact of the shutdown was described by professional medical organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians. It reported, "the government shutdown prevents federal agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration from food inspections, import monitoring and public notification of food safety problems. It blocks the Centers for Disease Control’s programs to operate its annual influenza program at the onset of the flu season, to monitor disease outbreaks, and to support state and local health departments’ infectious disease surveillance."

2013 press coverage reported, "increased risk to the public and workers and people who are particularly vulnerable. There is a whole scope of (health-related) protections that are deteriorating as the shutdown continues."

Social media shutdown
Less noted at the time was that as the federal agencies shut down, the operation of their Twitter and Facebook accounts also ceased — cutting the public off from crucial information about what was happening or how best to respond to the situation. Conversely, it also cut the central government off from the instantaneous stream of social media data that has become such an important tool for managing national emergency situations.

These social media issues are the focus of the new study published in AJPH.

"In the hours immediately following the start of the shutdown," the study authors wrote, "a major unmet need was the public’s access to detailed information regarding which federal health programs were affected."

‘A fog of uncertainty
"A fog of uncertainty surrounded the disruption of information and trust brought on by the partisan conflict in the government," they said.

The researchers pointed out that, "The social media accounts of some U.S. federal health departments and agencies were figuratively ‘furloughed,’ but they could have provided key information to the public before going offline."

"While the impact of the U.S. Government shutdown on actual health outcomes may not become evident for some time," the authors concluded, "the ability to understand the public’s perceptions and identify concerns at an early stage could be useful for determining how to best address the needs of the public in a temporarily disrupted health care system."