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Medical misinformation can spread quickly on social networks, study shows

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Recently, Conan O'Brien jokingly updated his Twitter feed with a photo of a spot on his arm and asked a dermatologist to get back to him with a diagnosis. Responses from followers ranged from a harmless freckle to actinic keratosis.

The former Tonight Show host's tweet serves as a comic example of how sharing personal health details on social networks can often result in confusion rather than clarity. Findings published this month in the American Journal of Infection Control provide further evidence of the prevalence of medical misinformation on Twitter and ability of the micro-blogging service to disseminate such inaccuracies to a large audience.

The study analyzed 1,000 tweets randomly selected from 52,153 Twitter updates posted between March 13, 2009, and July 31, 2009 for cases of misunderstanding or abuse with a search for the following combinations: flu + antibiotic(s), cold + antibiotic(s), leftover + antibiotic(s), share + antibiotic(s), and extra + antibiotic(s). Scientific Blogging reports researchers found:

That while the category of "misunderstanding and/or misuse" only comprised about 700 of the more than 52,000 tweets, such misunderstandings could easily spread to a large audience due to the nature of information flow through the Twitter network. The most popular word combination in this category was "flu + antibiotics," with 345 status updates including misinformation reaching a total of 172,571 followers. The next most popular word combination was "cold + antibiotics," with 302 status updates reaching a total of 850,375 followers.

Despite such results, study authors didn't condemn Twitter and other social media sites as being poor tools for distributing health information. Instead, they concluded more research is needed to determine how online networks can help in gathering real-time health data, disseminating valid health information and promoting positive behavior change.

Several government agencies and academic institutions are already using Twitter to accomplish these and other tasks such as the CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response, NIH For Health, Mayo Clinic and, of course, Stanford's School of Medicine.

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