Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Using Twitter to Track Disease: Weighing the Advantages and Challenges

A few weeks ago I participated in a fantastic twitter chat on the use of social media for public health.  During the event, our moderators posed the following question: "Are there any other diseases (besides the flu) that we could track on social media?"

The question generated a very lively discussion that I was inspired to revisit on Storify this morning after reading the Washington Post's article, "Twitter becomes a tool for tracking flu epidemics and other public health issues." 

The WP article highlights several advantages and challenges of monitoring public health diseases and/or conditions on twitter.  My twitter chat colleagues brought up many other important issues for us to consider, so I'm including these expanded lists:



  • Accuracy and case definition (i.e., does a twitter user really have the flu or just a bad cold?)
  • Tracking specific words like "sick" or "flu" can bring up a lot of content that is unrelated to the twitter user being ill themselves (e.g., "I'm so sick of this terrible weather").  *Check out how Johns Hopkins researchers are working to address this problem by better screening tweets.
  • We must differentiate between tracking symptoms vs. tracking cases- they are not the same.
  • Our search strategies should include various terms or slang that are used to describe the disease or behavior of interest.
  • Caution: media coverage of certain illnesses can cause a spike in key words on twitter without a rise in actual cases.
  • What are the privacy concerns?
  • Twitter might not thoroughly capture diseases or conditions that carry stigma (e.g., mental illness) because users may be hesitant to discuss them in a public forum.
  • Results could be skewed by populations who are over or under represented on twitter.
  • Do we need to train "trackers" to intervene? E.g., what if they are monitoring dangerous tweets/behaviors like suicidal ideation and attempts?
While the challenges list is quite long, I hope we are not discouraged!  I think twitter is an enormous resource for public health professionals.  We just need to be thoughtful and thorough regarding how to use twitter effectively.

More Resources:

The Washington Post article and related stories shared great links to more information about research in this area:
What Do You Think?
  • What other advantages and/or challenges should we add to the list?
  • What other resources can you share?

No comments:

Post a Comment