If you ask any journalist who writes a science article, or a PR person pitching one, if they would rather have a blurb about their work or get mentioned on Twitter, every single one will go for the link from Science 2.0.

Social media is all the rage, and it is great for mobilizing protests against stupid yogurt companies, but for research it is a lost cause compared to getting a link from a popular website. It's not just investigators, even health policy researchers, who need to be in tune with the public, know this. While 20 percent use Facebook or blog, only 14 percent. Most stick with what has worked in the past. 65 percent use press releases and hope they get an interview.

It's not that they don't believe that social media can be an effective way to communicate research findings - they just think it is effective for someone else. They don't respect it and assume their academic peers and institutions also do not value it or respect it as much as traditional media and direct contact with policy makers.

But,  write the authors of a paper on the topic in Health Affairs, when used effectively, social media channels could present a major opportunity for connecting with both policy makers and the general public.

The authors surveyed 215 health and health-policy researchers (primarily MDs and PhDs) about use of social media to communicate health-related information. With all of the changes and controversy over Obamacare, health policy is increasingly important.  

"Our study uncovered four central findings," explained lead author, David Grande, MD, MPA, assistant professor of Medicine at Penn Medicine. "First, most health policy researchers are not using social media to communicate their research results, which could be a significant missed opportunity to expose a larger audience to important health news and findings."

Results of the survey also say that researchers worry about how their peers and home institutions perceive social media, and that many describe it as replete with opinion and 'junk' and are concerned about presenting their scientific results in such settings. However, Grande notes that participants became more confident about social media when given examples of how the channels could be used effectively. For example, many thought that they could not communicate anything beyond the 140-character limit on Twitter, despite the common practice of including links to more substantive content. Understanding how to use these tools, the authors say, could alleviate concerns about the information being superficially presented.

Finally, the study shows that junior faculty members are more positively predisposed than their senior colleagues about social media. This, Grande says, could be a result of greater familiarity with it from other aspects of their lives, or it might be because senior faculty members have greater access to policy makers owing to their stature and reputation. Regardless, the authors suggest there are considerable benefits to using the tools for research dissemination.

"Historically, there has been a significant communication gap between researchers, on the one hand, and policy makers and the public at large, on the other," said senior author Zachary Meisel, MD, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn. "Social media channels are promising tools for closing this gap, provided they are used appropriately and effectively. As a first step, medical schools and health care institutions should help to educate researchers on how to properly use these channels to circulate their research findings and discuss implications."