The Role of Public Health Technology in Emergencies

As extreme weather conditions become more common, connecting people to information and aid during emergencies can be crucial to saving lives. Social media sites and other technologies are quickly becoming common tools for public health departments and other organizations to quickly inform and mobilize people. Today, more than 100,000 health apps are available in the iTunes and Google Play stores.


Take, for example, a heat wave. While not normally the first thought that comes to mind when listing a potentially deadly weather pattern, there were more than 7,400 heat-related deaths in the U.S. between 1999 and 2010. Heat waves are particular dangerous for the elderly, young children and those who are sick or overweight. Extreme heat can cause dehydration and cause people to become sick, or in some cases, die. Heat waves also lead to increased air pollution, which can bring on increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and asthma attacks. A heat wave in 1995 in Chicago that cut electricity for two days resulted in the death of over 700 people, more than twice the number who died in the Chicago Fire of 1871 (for a great read on why so many people died, read Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg). Today, 11 years later, some of those deaths could have potentially been averted with greater use of social media. Now organizations can post to Twitter or Facebook to inform residents of nearby cooling stations and neighbors and family members can more easily check in with their loved ones. More recently, Nextdoor, an app marketed as a tool for neighbors to keep each other up-to-date on what’s going on in their neighborhood, proved to be important in a Sacramento, CA fire that took down telephone lines. Neighbors alerted each other using the app and people were able to get to safety.


The interest in technology that can connect and alert people to public health disasters is continuing to grow. Although additional funding was not yet promised, the White House offered strong support for the development of an earthquake alert system at White House Earthquake Resilience Summit earlier this week. The SkakeAlert early warning system, now in the beta stages of testing, would warn West Coast residents before the shaking reaches them (assuming they are not in the epicenter) so they would have time to react.
emergency public health

Technology is also being used in non-emergency contexts. Doctors are using technology to remind patients to take their prescriptions. A push that has potential to improve the number of patients following their drug regimen, which could save the health care system a fair amount of money by preventing hospitalizations.


As technology continues to rapidly develop, public health departments and organizations should continue to leverage the use of social media, cellphone apps and other technologies to prevent mortality and morbidity.

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