Using Twitter and Social Media to Predict Disease: Identifying Risk and Impacting Change

Social media can be an exceptionally useful tool in Medicine.  Many platforms are  ideal for educating colleagues, patients and the community at large about chronic medical conditions as well as spreading the news of new medical innovations and treatments.  Social media platforms such as twitter, YouTube and Facebook (among others) can allow communication between people from different backgrounds and can connect those separated by oceans and thousands of miles all across the world.  While the medical establishment remains skeptical of social media and is often slow to adopt its routine use, it is emerging as an important part of many practices.

Twitter–both in and outside of its use in medicine–certainly has been shown to stir media controversies, influence politics and significantly impact careers (both positively and negatively) due to its ease of use and potential for immediate widespread dissemination.  Beyond the more traditional uses of social media platforms in medicine, a new study has recently been released that shows that one particular platform may actually be useful in predicting disease.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study in the January issue of Psychological Science in which they carefully examined the relationship between the “type” of language posted on twitter and an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease.  Stress, anger and other hostile emotions have long been associated with increased levels of cortisol, catecholamines (stress hormones) and increased inflammation.  These biologic byproducts of anger and hostile emotion have been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular events.  Based on this information, researchers set out to identify whether or not the type of language utilized in tweets by a defined population could predict those at greater risk of cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke.  In the study, researchers analysed tweets between 2009 and 1010 using a previously validated emotional dictionary and classified them as to whether they represented anger, stress or other types of emotions.  They found that negative emotion laden tweets–particularly those that expressed anger or hate–were significantly correlated with a higher rate of cardiovascular disease and death.  Conversely, those whose tweets were more positive and optimistic seemed to confer a much lower risk for heart disease and cardiovascular related death.

While this is certainly not a randomized controlled clinical trial–and while we must interpret these results in the context of the study design–it does illustrate an new utility for social media.  As we continue to reach out and engage with patients on social media, our interactions may actually provide more than just communication of ideas–these interactions may produce important clinical data that may provide clues to assist us in the treatment of our patients in the future.  This particular study allowed researchers to predict risk for entire communities based on an analysis of random tweets from those residing in that geographical area.  For primary care physicians, using clues provided from social media interaction may provide insight into both an entire community’s health risk as well as an individual patient’s demeanor and allow for more aggressive screening and treatment for a wide variety of diseases from depression to cardiovascular disease.

Social media use will continue to grow among medical professionals.  I believe that when healthcare providers use all available tools and data in the care of their patients, outcomes will improve.  We must continue to explore the use of social media platforms such as twitter in clinical care and we must continue to examine ways in which the social media behavior of patient populations can predict disease.  I commend the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania for their creativity and vision–we need more creative minds who are willing to use pioneering strategies to improve care for our patients.  We can no longer shy away from social media in medicine–we must embrace it and begin to learn how to use it as a tool to effect change.

 

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