Health-care org reaches teens via social media

Parkland Health & Hospital System connects with teenagers through MySpace.

Parkland Health & Hospital System connects with teenagers through MySpace

Sex education has just about come full circle.

Back in the day, kids used to get all their dirt on the streets. Sex education wasn’t taught in schools; kids whispered to each other or shared dirty magazines when grown-ups weren’t around.

Then came the social upheaval of the 1960s. And by the time I went to elementary school, back in the ’70s, somebody somewhere had decided that fifth-graders in the Chicago Public Schools needed to know about pregnancy and VD.

So once a week, my class was divided into two groups. Both groups used the same textbook, but the girls stayed in our classroom with a female teacher while the boys went across the hall with a male teacher. There was some giggling and comparing of notes amongst the kids, once the boys came back. But the teachers handled the topic professionally.

Yet nowadays, most states don’t mandate sex education. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that teen pregnancies are rising again. And some people are saying that the jump in teen pregnancy correlates with a lack of formalized sex education in schools.

So how are kids finding out about condoms or the clap? Maybe from each other. But if they live in the Dallas area, they might be looking at a MySpace page — more specifically, the MySpace page of Parkland Health & Hospital System.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Charise Thomason, a public relations specialist at Parkland, says the organization created a presence on MySpace to get teenagers into the hospital’s 11 local clinics.

“We want to get people into clinics,” Thomason says. “Everybody should have annual exams and prevention.”

Besides wanting to improve its educational outreach, Parkland wanted to connect with young adults more effectively.

But the Parkland Family Planning MySpace page has reached more than just teenagers. Women write in, asking questions about fertility. Parents ask where to take their daughters for birth control.

It’s like your own personal health class

As a public hospital, Parkland is there to give answers as well as health care.

“Our goal is to increase our image as a trusted source for solid health information,” Thomason explains.

That means that Parkland offers facts such as the following on its page:

  • Health news
  • Clinic locations
  • Services offered

The page also features a question-and-answer blog in which doctors at Parkland tackle various health questions.

Visitors to the page can also submit messages and comments via a private-messaging function. Messages and comments on the page remain confidential, unless the visitor chooses otherwise.

“A lot of teenagers are afraid to ask questions that they think are embarrassing,” Thomason explains. “That privacy is really important.”

The birth of social media for sex information

Parkland launched the page in November 2007, after Thomason met with the hospital’s vice president of family planning. They came up with the idea to use MySpace by brainstorming different ways to reach teenagers.

“The page allows us to access a popular tool that young adults already use to communicate with each other,” Thomason says. “And it’s budget-friendly.”

Interestingly enough, many of the visits to the site seem to take place during the week after 4 p.m. Thomason thinks that may be because that’s the time of day when teens are getting home from school or work. There’s not much traffic to the page on weekends.

Keeping it up

Thomason set up the page and maintains it, as well as getting answers to any questions that are submitted through the site. She says she gets a question every few days, and if it’s a medical question, she gets — and posts — a response from a physician. Despite the doctors’ hectic schedules, Thomason can usually post a response within 24 hours of receiving a query.

Although she dedicated about two hours a day the first week when she was creating the page, Thomason says she now spends about two hours a week to maintain the page. This is in addition to her other projects, which include internal communications, media relations and a quarterly magazine.

Once a month Thomason updates the blog. She draws some content from other sources and sometimes ties into timely topics (for example, STD Awareness Month).

“The page is mainly for family planning,” Thomason explains, “but we also post nutritional topics and other things people might not know about.”

For example, during prom season last year, the page offered dating tips for teenagers who were going to the dance. It included advice to girls who weren’t ready to “put out” on prom night.

“We try to work around whatever’s going on in a teenager’s life,” Thomason says.

Spreading the love

The page has had about 4,000 visits so far. However, the Parkland staff is still trying to find ways to measure the program’s effectiveness.

To track whether people are making appointments at clinics because of information they have seen on MySpace, Parkland has set up a phone number that is listed only on Parkland’s MySpace page. They’re also considering having people answer a survey that asks people to reveal where they found out about the clinic: on the MySpace page, from a friend, etc.

Perhaps one big long-term goal should involve lowering the rates of teen pregnancy in the Dallas area, where sex-education programs in public schools only teach abstinence. The state of Texas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

But for now, Thomason is at least hopeful that the people who visit MySpace are more educated about the birds and the bees.

“It’s not replacing health care,” Thomason admits, “but it’s given them answers where they didn’t have any before.”

How are you using new media to reach people? Tell us at ncu@watermark-communications.com.

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