Social media increasingly used to gauge public health
■ The real-time data allow for quick dissemination of information to a global audience, health officials say.
When Marcel Salathé, PhD, and his colleagues wanted to know the public's thoughts about the influenza A(H1N1) vaccine in 2009, they turned to Twitter.
The researchers examined more than 300,000 tweets that mentioned the H1N1 immunization and projected vaccine rates based on Twitter sentiments.
Their findings were similar to data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered through the more traditional approach of phone surveys. The fact that their findings were similar shows social media can be an accurate tool for health research, said Salathé, lead author of the vaccine study, published Oct. 13 in PLoS Computational Biology.
Salathé's study reflects the growing trend among researchers and health officials to use social media to examine public health and improve it.
For example, a study in the Sept. 30 issue of Science assessed Tweets to determine when people are happiest -- in the morning and on weekends. A study that appeared online Oct. 3 in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine looked at Facebook messages to help identify college students with drinking problems.
Health professionals say using social media for research offers real-time information on a large group of people across the globe. Social networking sites also enable the medical community to distribute health information quickly and inexpensively to the public.
There are downsides, however. They include having limited demographic information on study participants and the fact that Internet users are not necessarily representative of a population.
But medical experts agree that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks when it comes to the impact of social media on public health.
"Social media helps you understand, right now, what people are saying about [a health issue] and where people are saying it," said Salathé, assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University. "That gives public health officials an idea of where they should intensify communication efforts and what the misinformation is. That data wasn't available before."
Doctors on social media
Data show that Americans are using social media in larger numbers than before. In 2011, 65% of adults who spent time online used a social networking site, according to a survey of 2,277 adults by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. That figure is up from 61% in 2010.
Nearly 90% of physicians reported using at least one social media site personally, according to an August survey of more than 4,000 clinicians by the online physician learning collaborative QuantiaMD.
One such doctor is Mike Sevilla, MD, a family physician in Salem, Ohio, who blogs, tweets and has hundreds of Facebook friends. Dr. Sevilla encourages primary care physicians to spread public health messages to patients and community members by posting on a professional Facebook page a picture of themselves getting vaccinated against influenza or eating a healthy meal.
"Putting these pictures on Facebook lets people in the community know that we are doing what we tell them to do," he said.
Internist and cardiologist Westby Fisher, MD, often responds on his blog to public concerns that arise from new study findings. He blogs and tweets about important patient information, such as medication recalls by the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Fisher recommends that physicians use social media to alert the public about local disease outbreaks.
"If an outbreak occurs, transmission of information about it can occur worldwide in seconds. From a public health perspective, that's an extremely powerful tool," said Dr. Fisher, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
For the CDC, using social media to provide public health information to physicians and the public is a "no-brainer," said Shelly Diaz, a social media specialist at the agency.
During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the CDC turned to its Facebook page to educate the public about the virus and the importance of getting vaccinated against it. CDC experts monitored social media chatter on H1N1, which allowed them to quickly correct misinformation. One such rumor the CDC squashed was that people could develop the illness by eating pork.
After the film Contagion was released, the CDC held Twitter chats in September on how the agency monitors and responds to outbreaks of infectious diseases. The movie follows the progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills people within days.
"If there is information that we want to reach a mass audience that would help people make better health choices, we use social media" to disseminate it, Diaz said.
Many health professionals do not see social media-based research replacing more traditional study methods, because not everyone uses the Internet or social networking. But they expect data gathered from social media to play an increasingly larger role in addressing public health issues.
"Social media has huge potential for public health," Dr. Fisher said. "I don't think that people have even begun to realize that potential yet."