In today’s world of social media, oversharing is the norm. Twitter is great for discussing everything from that great new movie to what you had for breakfast. Facebook users often post status updates on everything under the sun, including their interactions, frustrations, struggles and even locations. If someone is feeling under the weather, they might post that fact on social media and get an almost instant stream of well-wishes, commiserations and remedy recommendations in return.
By contrast, an outbreak of illness typically follows a slower reporting and response process. The patient goes for medical care, and the health worker determines what might be the problem. The diagnosis is confirmed by lab tests, which might take a few days to complete. When too many people have the same diagnosis, an outbreak is suspected. This is then reported to health officials, who determine when a public alert will be released concerning the outbreak. The entire process can take several weeks or even months.
Social media platforms can speed up the process significantly by tracking what individuals say about their health in public forums. In late 2011, McHenry County in Illinois proved that social media could get to the truth faster than any public health announcement. This suburb of Chicago was hit hard by whooping cough, starting with the high school cheerleaders, athletes and band members, according to Bloomberg. Students, families and citizens began talking about the illness on Facebook and Twitter. Sickweather LLC spotted the surge in comments online – about two weeks before an official health statement was released on the whooping cough outbreak in that area.
Social media was responsible for the early warning of the recent Ebola outbreak in Guinea, according to Government Technology. HealthMap, a program that mines social media, local news reports and government websites to search for evidence of disease outbreaks, pinpointed a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” in Guinea a full nine days before the World Health Organization announced the Ebola epidemic.
These early warnings have made it clear that social media is poised to spot everything from flu outbreaks to Ebola concerns to mental health issues. Figuring out how to harness the information and use it properly is the next step in making social media work for healthcare.
What Social Media Platforms Can Reveal
When someone is sick, they want to know what’s wrong. It’s not unusual for individuals to turn to Wikipedia for more information about their diagnosis, looking up key search terms in a pursuit of a better understanding. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using that human tendency to search for answers as a foundation to predict outbreaks of influenza, Dengue fever and more. According to FierceHealthIT, algorithms that connect Wikipedia searches with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could lead to disease predictions in real-time.
Facebook has long been a gold mine of information for those who want to weed through millions of updates. Individuals who use the social media site tend to share a great deal of information, including their illnesses, the friend who is feeling under the weather or a family member who is in the hospital. By sifting through the information that is readily available, scientists can find pockets of the world where illnesses and diseases are spreading. When compared with similar information from other social media sites, a stronger picture of a healthcare crisis can be painted, sometimes long before the government of that particular country catches on.
One of the most surprising uses of social media to track flu symptoms is following cancellations on the popular restaurant app, Open Table. According to MedPageToday, those who are very sick will usually chose to cancel reservations and stay home; those cancellations tend to peak in a particular city where illness is running rampant.
Those who are feeling just fine and choose to go out to dinner but find themselves very sick afterward often talk about it online, particularly on websites like Yelp. In fact, 10 percent of all reviews of restaurants on Yelp are related to food-borne illness. That can serve as a surprisingly powerful tool for health departments, allowing them to plan inspections of restaurants that seem to have a great number of customers falling ill.
Twitter has proven to be a very adept tool for uncovering issues, including mental illness. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University designed a computer algorithm to read over eight billion tweets, looking for specific words and phrases commonly associated with anxiety and insomnia, according to Tech Times. The idea is that individuals are more likely to talk openly on an online platform about their life struggles, including issues with mental illness. The program has shown success in pinpointing flu outbreaks, higher incidences of depression in areas affected by unemployment and even higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder in areas with a high population of veterans.