Researchers are now analyzing this wealth of social media data to better understand what people think and say about their health. Recently, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sifted through 10 billion English-language tweets to identify and study more than 550,000 U.S.-based tweets related to cardiovascular disease, as reported in JAMA Cardiology.
The research team found that people who tweeted about five cardiovascular conditions — high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, heart failure and cardiac arrest — were more likely to be older and female compared to the general population of Twitter users. They also tweeted within minutes or hours in response to events, such as celebrity deaths or to mark World Diabetes Day.
This study was discussed in the issue’s Editor’s Note by Stanford journal editors Mintu Turakhia, MD, an assistant professor of medicine, and Robert Harrington, MD, a professor and the chair of the Department of Medicine. In the editorial, they acknowledged that the Penn Twitter study was atypical research to include in JAMA Cardiology but noted that digital health is now a major priority for the journal. They explained:
We accepted [the paper] because it highlights the potential for using these emerging data sources such as Twitter for cardiovascular research, in this case to evaluate public communication about cardiovascular medicine in a manner not previously possible on such a scale.
Turakhia, the journal's associate editor of digital health, elaborated in an email: “Twitter and other social media data allow us to examine daily interactions in a connected life in ways not possible before. Previously, in order to gain insight on the public’s perception or interest in cardiovascular disease, we were limited to examine historical news and media archives or direct surveys.”
Although the editors believe that Twitter is a new and important research tool, they raised a few questions about future studies. They wrote in the editorial: “The use of Twitter and other social media platforms for cardiovascular research is in an early, proof-of-concept stage. Many important questions remain: Is there signal in the noise? Are these data or results… from the ‘Twitterverse’ generalizable to a broader population?” They also emphasized the need to establish analysis standards and overcome any ethical issues involved with linking the data with clinical information. Turakhia added:
Twitter users do not represent the broader population, but that’s not really its purpose. Twitter allows us to examine a highly connected subset of society and learn how cardiovascular disease might manifest in their connected world.
Ultimately, researchers hope to use this new information to improve their patients’ health, but the research is in its infancy, he said, adding:
We haven’t yet figured out how Twitter or social media can be definitely used to improve health and health care. The obvious avenues would be through social and community engagement. Although sharing of personal information is at the cornerstone of the success of social media, I’m not sure that society is ready to be as open with posting health information, as they are with selfies or pictures of kids. However social media could be used to gamify health care behavior by providing incentives, and that won’t need disclosure.
Previously: Finding asthma outbreaks using Twitter: How social media can improve disease detection and Upset stomachs and hurting feet: A look at how people use Twitter for health information
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