Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 04, 2011

Healthcare Technology and News: Twitter is the New 911: Tweets Now Saving Lives

Social media has been blamed and praised for just about everything, from starting the Arab Spring to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. But what if venues like Twitter could save lives?

Apparently that’s what happened when a grandmother in rural south Georgia, her granddaughter’s husband in Connecticut, a social media manager and a hospital admissions unit worked together to get the grandmother helicoptered safely and almost instantaneously to an ICU hundreds of miles away, all through the use of Twitter.

The grandmother had a ruptured aorta, life-threatening at any age, but the nearest hospital was 150 miles away. The grandson-in-law, Matthew Browning, sent out a tweet desperately asking for help and a web and social media specialist at Emory Healthcare, a hospital system in Atlanta, answered, and was able to arrange transport service for the critically ill woman. Thirty-five minutes later, the grandmother was on a helicopter to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

When Twitter’s founders launched the service in 2006, they advertised it as a way to keep abreast of friends’ everyday lives, like tweeting in short bursts, “I’m watching Dancing with the Stars!” But a different kind of following has found novel and unexpected applications for the service. This movement includes government agencies, which use Twitter for various functions, such as real-time alerts about emergencies.

Those in emergency management, like the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, which monitors flooding, and the Red Cross, feel Twitter is changing the way emergencies are reported and aided. Twitter is being used mostly as an informational source with speed and news being paramount, and has been very helpful to informational outreaches to the public. 

Police departments in Kansas use it to send out information about missing persons and the Centers for Disease Control Emergency Preparedness and Response Site uses it as a mass communications tool. It’s also been used in the rescue of skiers in the Swiss Alps and to warn Californians of impending wild fires.

But as with any new technology, integrating Twitter into public safety or emergency management environments raises questions that have not yet been answered, such as security and privacy user identity management, authentication and control. For the moment, though, it is bringing help and comfort to many across the globe.

Deborah DiSesa Hirsch is an award-winning health and technology writer who has worked for newspapers, magazines and IBM in her 20-year career. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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