Twitter Proves Useful as a Platform to Discuss Adverse Events


Less serious adverse events remain a concern for patients treated for chronic diseases.

The modern world is heavily rooted in online and digital activities, with most individuals having at least 1 social media account. Various studies have explored how social media platforms can help patients cope with a new diagnosis and how these channels may affect treatment decisions.

A recent study published by Nature Partner Journals-Digital Medicine suggests that Twitter may be a useful tool to track adverse events of certain medications.

The analysis, which included more than 20,000 tweets, showed that patients are overwhelmingly concerned about less severe adverse events associated with prednisolone, such as insomnia and weight gain. Prednisolone is frequently prescribed to treat inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The study explored the different adverse events experienced with prednisolone by using a computer system that automatically identified tweets containing the drug name, in addition to mentions of an adverse event. The system converted informal language to medical terms, including translating “can’t sleep” to insomnia.

The authors said that insomnia and weight gain are well-known adverse events, but research typically focuses on more serious conditions, such as osteoporosis and fractures.

Despite few studies dedicated to the lesser adverse events, these conditions may cause worry among prednisolone users, according to the study.

“Though insomnia and weight gain were the 2 most commonly discussed side-effects, they are not usually highlighted by clinicians when prescribing prednisolone,” said researcher Dr Rikesh Patel. “Part of this is down to a lack of research investigating patient experience with their medications.”

Over a 3-year period, there were 159,297 tweets mentioning prednisolone, with nearly 20,000 mentioning adverse events. Of these tweets, 1737 mentioned insomnia, 1656 mentioned weight gain, and 1515 mentioned increased appetite, according to the study.

Additionally, the authors discovered that 1576 tweets mentioned non-specific events, such as “I hate prednisolone.”

“We believe social media such as Twitter can be used to broaden knowledge about drugs and potential side-effects that patients themselves find troublesome,” Dr Rikesh said. “And this type of automatic extraction is an efficient way of getting this information, because we’re dealing with large volumes of data.”

These findings highlight how patients are using social platforms to discuss adverse events related to a specific treatment. These results may also suggest that prescribers should educate patients about the less serious adverse events, not only with prednisolone but all drugs.

“Our view is that social media sources such as Twitter can be useful because they can illustrate which drug side-effects patients discuss most commonly, even if they are not necessarily the most serious,” said lead researcher Will Dixon, PhD. “In this example, it helps re-focus our research into steroid-related side effects that are clearly important to patients.”

Although this study focused on steroids, this could also translate to patients who are taking specialty drugs, which often come with more serious adverse events.

“Social media posts may also give us a future view of how side effects impact on patients’ quality of life,” Dr Dixon said.

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