Social media posts can reveal individual’s health status through language used: Study

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Reflected Facebook logo
A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye, in Zenica, March 13, 2015. Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Researchers found that the language people use and the information they post could provide valuable insights into the relationship between their everyday lives and health. Social media could provide the validated information from a health record and other insights about a person’s health and health outcome.

Social media, particular to Facebook and Twitter, has been found to have rich potential to help determine health trends in the general public and individuals, as well as to create education campaigns and interventions. The new study is the first of its kind to find effective ways to harness and gather the data from social media, which could be a valuable source of information on how and why patients communicate about their health, researchers said.

"We don't often think of our social media content as data, but the language we use and the information we post may offer valuable insights into the relationship between our everyday lives and our health," said Dr Raina Merchant, senior author of the study and director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab at Penn Medicine.

Social media posts, made up of words, language, and conversations, could be compared to genetic information, which is banked to help track future health. The posts from consenting individuals could also be banked and evaluated to see its potential correlations with health and health outcomes, Merchant said.

For the study, the researchers asked patients who visit emergency departments if they use social media, and if they would allow the team to gather their social media data and electronic medical data for a database. Over 1,000 participants shared their social media and medical data for about seven months.

The researchers collected almost 1.4 million Facebook and Twitter posts since 2009, covering nearly 12 million words. Some of the contents are like "I forgot to take my water pill for my heart failure today," and others shared series of photos with salty foods.

It has been found that the variations in word complexity could be associated with the cognitive decline. The changes in the number of words in each post or network size could also suggest a depressed mental status, researcher said.

Posts could also indicate a person’s adherence to prescribed medications, health behaviours, and their new medical conditions. The findings were published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety.

"These findings suggests that social media is a promising avenue for exploring how patients conceptualise and communicate about their specific health issues," said Dr Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science.

However, the researchers said that it is highly important to consider the patient’s confidentiality. "The opportunity for studying new connections in social media and health is significant as we were able to collect patients' digital footprints in a way that is transparent and attentive to issues of patient privacy," Merchant said.

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