Healthcare social media researchers could learn a lot from startups, pharma

The study results suggest it may be possible to link social media content to health outcomes.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine think they’re on to something. People share a lot of information about themselves on social media, including their health. There may be a way to use this information, with their permission of course, to glean insights on patients’ well being.

The study results suggest that not only are many adult Facebook and Twitter users willing to share their social media data and medical data for research purposes, but that by building a language databank, it may be possible to link social media content to health outcomes, according to a statement about the study from Penn Medicine.

Here’s a description of the study:

Patients visiting an emergency department were asked if they used social media, and if they would be willing to share their social media data and electronic medical data with health researchers, for the purpose of building a research database. Similar to existing banks of genomic data, the research database of language and other social media data allows researchers to draw correlations between participants’ online content and their health. More than 1,000 participants consented to share their social media and medical data over seven months. Analyzing content from as far back as 2009, the shared social media data consisted of nearly 1.4 million posts and tweets to Facebook and Twitter, comprising almost 12 million words.

Some of the study observations included:

  • The language we use and the information we post may offer valuable insights into the relationship between our everyday lives and our health;
  • Finding effective ways to harness and mine that data could prove to be a valuable source of information about how and why patients communicate about their health.
  • Some of the information is explicit like, “I forgot to take my water pill for my heart failure today,” and others are more subtle, like a series of photos with salty foods.
  • Individuals with a given diagnosis in their electronic medical record were significantly more likely to use terms related to that diagnosis on Facebook than patients without that diagnosis in their electronic medical record.

Although this study is interesting in and of itself, digital health startups have been active in these areas for a while, namely and other digital health entrepreneurs and innovators using Twitter and other social media to monitor public health trends. What’s fascinating isn’t this theory so much as what it illustrates: How late in the game the medical establishment is with taking social media seriously. Pharma companies, for example, have recognized the power of social media for years.

That’s one of the things that struck me in my initial couple of years at MCN — big pharma companies’ keen interest in social media. They had teams of people to study what people said about their conditions on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as what professionals said on physician social networks. It’s not just about keeping tabs on and using their brand, although that’s a big part of it.

They also have used social media to see what people are saying about their symptoms in the context of their medication, and what public social network groups have to say about their needs, their priorities and what would make their lives better. It’s not about intervention so much as having an ear to the ground for these conversations.

Although the convergence in healthcare has helped force people to see how different technologies can be applied to improve patient outcomes, the different segments of healthcare have a lot to learn from each other.