Stay connected and stay healthy

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Jay Bernhardt, professor and chair of Health Education and Behavior and director of Center for Digital Health and Wellness, opened the eyes of computer science majors and health science students to the potentials of combining the strengths of social media and public health in a Thursday lecture at the James E. Talmage building.

“Public health … is about systems, it’s not just about individual behavior, what we choose to do, but what we have access to, where we live, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the seat belts in our cars and everything else,” Bernhardt said. “It’s a collective system that together creates the ability for people to protect and promote their health.”

Bernhardt gave the early example of John Snow, born in 1813, a physician and epidemiologist who traced an epidemic of cholera to a specific water pump being used by the people in the Soho area of London.

“He did so by mapping the area, mapping the places where the outbreaks were occurring and he was able to then track it back to the water source,” Bernhardt said. “Ultimately, after a lot of convincing, he convinced the authorities to take the handle off the well and make it inaccessible to the public.”

Bernhardt introduced the idea of being in touch with current technology as “2.0” and endorsed the idea of bringing public health up to speed. One of the important steps he mentioned is partnerships.

“Social networks, and the ability to link people socially through technology to build coalitions and maintain coalitions, has great potential,” Bernhardt said. “Many organizations, like the American Cancer Society already use social media to link their communities.”

One partnership he specifically addressed was PatientsLikeMe, a site that allows users to ask for and give advice to others about medications and treatments.

“A lot of people use this to make decisions in their medical care,” Bernhardt said. “Where it used to be that you would ask your doctor, your family, or your friends a lot of people are going to social media to make medical decisions.”

Public health can also take advantage of location-based services in order to inform and support.

“There’s a number of tools that exist around HIV testing and mental health services as well as substance abuse services where you could text your zip code to a short code and it would tell you where to go for substance abuse service, or if someone is at risk for suicide it could tell you somewhere to go or a number to call for help,” he said.

This was the inaugural lecture of the lecture series of the Computational Health Science Collaborative on campus which brings researchers in health science and computer science together.

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