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Heart Health

The Most Effective Health-Awareness Day

Health awareness days are ubiquitous. But does dedicating a day to a serious disease or to healthy living habits actually make a difference in the lives of people who hear about the occasion? In one case, the answer is yes, researchers say.

But a new study, published today in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and other institutions, used modern Big Data analyses to confirm that the Great American Smokeout, one of the longest-running awareness events, does help promote good behavior among many people who hear about it.

The team of public health and computer science experts reviewed data collected since 2009, the team analyzed news reports on smoking cessation and tweets encouraging cessation emerging from the United States to see if the Great American Smokeout’s message was heard and shared. Then they checked if Americans engaged with that message by seeking resources on Google and Wikipedia to aid smoking cessation, or by calling quitlines that offer live counseling on how to quit.

Compared to what would be expected on a normal day, the Great American Smokeout typically coincided with a 61 percent increase in news reports on cessation and a 13 percent increase in tweets encouraging cessation. In practical terms, this was the second-highest daily news coverage of smoking cessation in several years, including the last three, only falling short of New Year’s Day.

Cessation-related Google searches, like “help quit smoking,” typically increased by 25 percent on the Great American Smokeout, with visits to the Wikipedia cessation page and calls to quitlines typically increasing by 22 and 42 percent, respectively. This public engagement with smoking cessation translated into about 61,000 more instances of unique Google searches, Wikipedia visits and calls to quitlines annually than expected.

The research at Johns Hopkins was supervised by Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. He said the advent of the Big Data era not only impacted the team’s ability to understand awareness days, but also potentially increased their impact.

“For the first time in history, the public can access and share information immediately, and instantaneously engage in improving their health via their smartphones, as we observed,” said Dredze, the data architect and a co-author for the study.

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