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Finding Health Clues in Social Media

Finding Health Clues in Social Media
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Generally speaking, people use social media for… well, social reasons. But what if your social media footprint could reveal key information about your health? According to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, this could very well be the case.

Data Mining

This particular study recruited roughly 1,000 people, all of whom utilized the services of a certain hospital Emergency Department. Each member of this group agreed to share their social media activities (extending back to 2009) with the study authors. In turn, the research team compared this data against the subjects’ EMRs, or electronic medical records.

Sorting through these mounds of information was no easy task; in all, the team had to review nearly 12 million words posted to social media. Many of these social media contributions contained specific references to medical issues. For example, one person wrote about forgetting to take a water pill for heart failure.

Other clues were far less obvious, such as a tendency to post images of salt-rich foods. Likewise, a person who uses increasingly simple language may be suffering deteriorating cognitive health. The authors also speculate that depressed individuals might significantly alter the length of their posts.

Words Matter

Another key finding was that, upon being diagnosed with a certain condition, a person was more likely to mention that name of that condition (or related terms) online. One condition where this relationship was especially pronounced was abdominal pain; on the social network site Facebook, more than one-fifth of abdominal pain sufferers used terms related to this issue. In contrast, such words were typed by just eight percent of subjects with pain-free abdomens.

Study co-author Lyle Ungar believes that social media could provide keen insight as to how health issues impact the general public.“These findings suggests that social media is a promising avenue for exploring how patients conceptualize and communicate about their specific health issues,” stated Ungar in a press release. “We see this as just the first of many studies to come examining the relationship between health and social media.”

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