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Social Media Not A Cure-All For Racial Health Disparities

African-Americans in Texas are more likely than whites to die from a host of diseases including diabetes, cancer, and HIV. But efforts to educate minorities about health risks through social media have largely fallen flat. Broadband access is limited in minority communities, government red tape restricts state agencies, and public health groups often fail to engage effectively with their social media followers.

"In my survey of health advocacy groups, they're using social media like old media, just posting fliers and information about health campaigns," University of Houston-Downtown professor Aimee Roundtree said today during a panel discussion at South by Southwest Interactive.  

"If you're using social media to engage communities of color, write like a friend, not an agency. Listen as much as you talk. Start from their level of engagement. If they're talking about diet or exercise, start there," she said.

Widespread broadband access is often cost prohibitive for the lower income minorities that public health agencies try to target with social media campaigns, according to Dr. Wen-ying Sylvia Chou from the National Institutes of Health.  But she said that digital divide appears to be closing.

"We found that after controlling for internet access, there is practically no racial and ethnic difference in social media use and engagement," she said. "In fact, African-Americans might be more likely to use social media than other groups," if they add equal access to broadband internet.

But she added that most people don't use social media to learn about healthy behavior. "I don't go on YouTube to necessarily look for health information. I might just be bored," she said.

Sometimes just starting public information campaign on sites like Twitter and Facebook can be hindered by government regulations surrounding privacy and record retention, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services HIV/STD public information coordinator, Greg Beets.

He said confidentiality considerations about a patient's health status "makes the decision makers in the health department a little uncomfortable." Unique content on government run social media sites is considered public record, he said, and is subject to public information requests. In part because of those considerations, the Texas Department of State Health Services has made only "tentative steps" into social media, he said.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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