Social Media May Provide Key Health Information

Could your Facebook posts be the clue to your health?

authors Christine Imbs

Social media is huge. Facebook and Twitter combined have more than 1.5 billion users worldwide. And even though many may see it as a time waster and the knell of human interaction, this technology could quite possibly turn out to be a lifesaver for patients – and a helpful tool for physicians and other healthcare providers.

According to new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, language used in everyday social media posts may have a strong connection to an individual’s health. The first study of its kind, the results suggest that not only are many adult Facebook and Twitter users willing to share their social media and medical data for research purposes, but by building a language databank, it may be possible to link social media content to health outcomes.

“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 the study’s senior author, Raina M. Merchant, MD, director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab and an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine. “Finding ways to effectively harness and mine that data could prove to be a valuable source of information about how and why patients communicate about their health.”

To build the database, researchers began by approaching patients visiting an Emergency Department to see whether they used social media regularly, and if they’d be willing to share that data, along with their electronic medical records.

“Obviously, we had to have a certain volume of data for this information to be useful,” said Merchant. “If we only had people who posted once on Facebook, then we couldn’t do a sufficient analysis.”

More than 1,000 patients agreed to share their social media and medical data over a 7-month period. 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 nearly 12 million words. Merchant considers it a kind of diary of patients’ lives.

“Whenever we post something on Facebook or send a tweet or even post a photo, embedded in all that are our thoughts, feelings and what we do on a daily basis,” she explained. “Inevitably, that information is about health. This will help us think about health in new ways, some of which we haven’t even begun to consider.”

In analyzing the data, researchers found that some social media posts were explicit like “I have asthma,” or “I have diabetes.” Others were more subtle, like a series of photos of salty foods. They found that variations in word complexity could suggest cognitive decline, and a change in the number of words per post or network size could indicate depression. Posted content could also reveal information about adherence to prescribed medications, new medical conditions, or health behaviors like exercise and diets.

Researchers also found individuals with a diagnosis in their medical records were significantly more likely to use terms relating to that diagnosis in their posts. For example, 21 percent of individuals diagnosed with abdominal pain used terms such as “stomach pain” and “belly ache.” Only 8 percent of those without that diagnosis used those terms.

“One of the unique aspects of this data is the ability to link social media data with validated information from a health record,” said Merchant. “There is a rich potential to identify health trends both in the general public and at the individual level, to create educational campaigns and interventions, and much more.”

Merchant pointed out that during the research process, patient confidentiality was critically important.

“We wanted people to feel free to share their data so we could begin looking for patterns that could potentially help us better understand health and behaviors. So we weren’t looking at this information real time,” she commented. “We were looking in aggregate. For example, we looked at patients who had diabetes and how many of them had posted something about diabetes. There was absolutely no lurking on anyone’s social media site.”

Merchant added that even though most of us use the Internet, we really don’t understand what our comments, purchases, or the even sites we click on say about our health. “So really, the opportunity we see is in being able to personalize it and to share with people what their online footprint says about them.”



Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

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