Study: Twitter can boost health research

While healthcare practitioners ponder the best way to incorporate social media into their lives or practices, Twitter may be a useful tool in gauging both feedback from consumers and for furthering research, according to a recent study. The study, from the University of British Columbia, found that over a six-month period, English-language tweets from a […]

While healthcare practitioners ponder the best way to incorporate social media into their lives or practices, Twitter may be a useful tool in gauging both feedback from consumers and for furthering research, according to a recent study.

The study, from the University of British Columbia, found that over a six-month period, English-language tweets from a wide variety of users on certain matters of healthcare – in this instance spinal chord injury and Parkinson’s Disease and stem cell research – yielded significant information and patterns that could be put to good use, lead author Julie Robillard said.

Both conditions, she said, had shown high levels of health searches on the internet. While researchers found roughly 25 percent of spinal chord injury and 15 percent for Parkinson’s were from healthcare professionals, the majority of tweets from all users were about research findings, “particularly the ones perceived as medical breakthroughs.”

The conversations differed between the spinal chord injury and Parkinson’s cohorts, with users who tweeted about the former focusing more on clinical trials, and those who tweeted about Parkinson’s mostly talking about new tools or methods being developed for research.

“It was more of an emphasis on research mentions and tools,” said Robillard, a neurology professor at UBC’s National Core for Neuroethics and Djavad Mowafaghian Center for Brain Health. “That was a surprise. The immediate response was that’s what came out of the news, but we can’t quite say that because we studied it for six months, which is a long time for Twitter. We couldn’t have really predicted that.”

Regarding the use of stem cells for Parkinson’s, Robillard said the expectation going into the study was there would be a good level of debate, given there is still a fair amount of controversy surrounding the use of stem cells. And, Twitter has seen its share of acrimonious debates. That wasn’t the case – less than five percent of tweets spoke against stem cell research.

“We analyzed the tone of the tweets,” Robillard said. “We found nearly 100 percent was positive or neutral. There was very little discussion of risk or ethical challenges. That was a surprise.”

So what does this mean for healthcare, and for physicians in particular who traditionally have shown reluctance toward social media?

The implications are two-fold, Robillard said. For starters, not every physician needs to be on Twitter, but it may be more beneficial than previously thought.

“At a minimum you should be aware that these conversations are happening, and you may run into them in the clinical setting,” she said, noting that physicians can likely glean some insights from either the original research being discussed or the public’s reaction to it.

Secondly, she said researchers and media could learn a best-practices of sorts in how research is discussed, particularly amid steady streams of misinformation or grandstanding statements on the internet about certain breakthroughs with varying degrees of scientific veracity. Indeed, results are often taken out of context by laypeople, sometimes in press releases or abstracts drafted by researchers, sometimes journalists and sometimes the public at large.

For example: not prominently mentioning whether the research shows great promise in mice versus humans

“Little words can make a difference,” she said. “Always put research in context. One aspect is disclosing your model. In 140 characters it’s possible.”

Robillard said other conditions and health issues would likely be studied in a similar fashion, but a decision on which ones has not yet been determined.