From OTC Picks to Rx Mixups, Twitter Tells All

Information shared by patients on social networking sites reveals key health trends and medication misconceptions.

Information shared by patients on social networking sites reveals key health trends and medication misconceptions.

Twitter is a goldmine of health information.

That was the conclusion reached by computer scientists Mark Dredze and Michael J. Paul, of Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) Human Language Technology Center of Excellence, who recently combed through 2 billion public updates on the site to see whether it could be used as a tool to research public health.

What turned up? A little bit of everything, the pair reported. “In some cases, we probably learned some things that even the tweeters’ doctors were not aware of, like which over-the-counter medicines the posters were using to treat their symptoms at home,” said Dredze, assistant research professor of computer science at JHU.

He and Paul, a JHU doctoral student, used a filtering system they developed to narrow down the billions of tweets posted from May 2009 to October of 2010 to a manageable 1.5 million, all of which were related to various ailments and illnesses. The team looked for patterns about allergies, influenza, insomnia, cancer, obesity, depression, and pain, among other health topics.

In a sample tweet from the study, a patient complained, “Had to pop a Benadryl…allergies are the worst.” It’s this type of mundane sharing that turns many people off of Twitter and social networking in general—but it’s also exactly the kind of tweet that helped Paul and Dredze track the development of allergy and flu seasons across the country.

“We were able to see from the tweets that the allergy season started earlier in the warmer states and later in the Midwest and the Northeast,” said Drezde. The pattern was observable in the 200,000 tweets whose senders provided their location along with a 140-character rundown of their symptoms.

The researchers’ findings about influenza confirmed the conclusions of several other studies on social media and public health—that despite countless warnings against the practice, many patients continue to take antibiotics to treat symptoms of the flu. “These tweets showed us that some serious medical misperceptions exist out there,” Paul said.

Because sharing on the site is entirely self-directed, it may be a more efficient tool for gathering information about public perceptions regarding illnesses and medications, the team noted. They plan to share the results of the complete study July 18, 2011, at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media in Barcelona, Spain.

In the meantime, Drezde and Paul have been discussing Twitter’s potential with other public health scientists. “The people I’ve talked to have felt this is a really interesting research tool,” said Drezde, “and they have some great ideas about what they’d like to learn next from Twitter.”

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • HHS Lays Groundwork for Insurance Exchanges
  • Does Poor Oral Hygiene Hurt Pregnancy Chances?