As the United States moves forward with health reform, conveying complex information to the public becomes increasingly important. Social media represent an expanding opportunity for health policy researchers to communicate with the public and policy makers – but its use among these researchers appears to be low, according to a new study released today as a Web First by Health Affairs.

Authors David Grande, Sarah Gollust, Maximilian Pany, Jame Seymour, Adeline Goss, Austin Kilaru, and Zachary Meisel surveyed a sample of 325 health policy researchers who had registered for the 2013 Academy Health Annual Research Meeting.

The survey found small minorities using social media: 14 percent of participants reported tweeting, and 21 percent noted blogging about their research in the past year. Survey participants expressed reluctance to use social media, fearing it is incompatible with research, creates professional risks, and is not respected by their peers or their academic institutions.

Grande, Seymour, Goss, Kilaru, and Meisel are affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Gollust is with the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and Pany is an undergraduate at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Despite these concerns, the authors found that researchers believe social media to be an effective way to share research results with policy makers. However, compared to more traditional dissemination methods (traditional media, directly contacting policy makers), researchers rated social media lower in their own confidence to use it, whether their academic researchers respect it, and whether their academic institution values its use in the promotion process.

The researchers also detected a generational divide: Junior faculty members were more sanguine about the efficacy of social media to share their research results.

“Historically, the communication gap between researchers and policy makers has been large,” concluded the authors. “Social media are a new and relatively untested tool, but they have the potential to create new communication channels between researchers and policy makers to help narrow that gap.”

The study, which is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will also appear in the July issue of Health Affairs.