The growth of social media in health has been evident among hospitals and private health organizations’ use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as marketing, advertising, teaching, and learning tools. Public health organizations also saw social media’s advantage; an example of which is how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US encourages the use of Twitter to effectively reach individuals with health and safety information.
But other than that, researchers in the field of public health have utilized Twitter to study health trends or accomplish surveillance. This is due to the fact that a majority of Twitter users post about personal updates which include tweets about being sick, how they feel about it and how they decide to undergo treatment.
Computer Science students from Johns Hopkins University, with the assistance of specially designed software, scanned two billion public tweets and analyzed the messages for information about a variety of health issues. The researchers were able to gather information regarding flu and allergy trends in various parts of the country in just 200,000 health-related tweets.
Geographic studies can also be done since Twitter users often include locations in their profiles. Penn State University conducted a study on the various reactions of the public regarding vaccination when the H1N1 influenza vaccine was released. They rated the reactions to be either negative or positive. The study showed that the height of negative reactions occurred at the beginning, when the vaccine was first announced. Positive reactions arose once the vaccines were used and widely distributed. They were then able to compare these tweets with CDC data to determine how vaccination attitudes correlated with estimated vaccination rates and they found out that the place with the highest positive-sentiment had the highest H1N1 vaccination rate.
Other than geographic studies, population studies can also be done due to the diversity of Twitter users. This reinforces the possibility that the use of Twitter as a research tool can guide public-health initiatives, assess health impacts, and gauge the response of people with regards to health interventions.
Twitter’s extensive reach enables a lot of sectors of society to make the most of its features to not only learn about different segments of the public but also to disseminate pertinent information about health and wellness. For now there are still a lot of limitations and challenges to its use as a public health research tool. But hopefully in the future, Twitter may end up as an effective tool for public health surveillance and may even be used to prevent epidemics.
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