Monday, November 10, 2014

When We Tweet About Health

A few weeks ago, I discovered that not one, but two colleagues in my PhD program— people I previously held in high esteem, had no idea who Amal Alamuddin Clooney was.  I did not think it was possible to not know.  But, like many things in life, whether or not you know who Amal Alamuddin Clooney is and every outfit she wore over her wedding weekend in Venice depends greatly on where you get your information (for Dan and Ilene, that would be the smooth underside of a rock). 
Where we get our health information is not just a matter of self-improvement, but one of public health.  One only needs to look at the current Ebola outbreak to see the importance of accurate and trustworthy sources of information.  As more and more of our conversations and news-seeking occur online, it’s important to understand who is talking about health online and what they’re saying.  With that in mind, I teamed up with a few colleagues* to examine health conversations occurring on Twitter.  Our results were published last month (synergy!).  We especially wanted to know the types of things people tweeted about (like whether it was evidence-based, personal, or commercial), and whether different types of users (like doctors versus patients) tweeted about different things.
Word cloud of health-related tweets in our analysis (Lee 2014).
Yes, Readers, qualitative research is every bit as sexy as it sounds.  We systematically gathered a pile of tweets and categorized each one.  We found a diverse array of health-related user groups posting about a wide range of health topics.  For example, while organizations and businesses use Twitter to promote their services and products, patient advocates are using this tool to share their personal experiences with health.  Most health tweets were claims that users would expect to be supported by some level of medical evidence or shared news, though whether these claims were actually scientifically valid was not examined. 
While our study may not save lives "millions at a time", it is among the first to capture, in depth and breadth, what users are tweeting about health.  It points to the diverse activity on Twitter and the need for helping users, especially patients, make sense of the health tweets out there, by medical professionals, you, me, and even Amal Alamuddin Clooney**.  Knowing about our information sources enables us to know what to do with their information. 

*Colleague is too inadequate a term.  I worked with four wonderful mentors who generously welcomed me and patiently guided me through the whole process. 

**Not actually on Twitter (but I am!  Follow: @superlegitJoy)

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