Patients' social media posts may be the next big thing for big data

'There is a rich potential to identify health trends'
By Erin McCann
10:56 AM
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Mining patients' social media data could provide enormous insight into overall health outcomes, according to a new study conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers.

By handling social media posts much like big data, it just may be possible to link social media posts to health outcomes, said researchers at UPenn's Perelman School of Medicine, in a new study. If patients consent to sharing this data, a research database could be created, comparable to that of genomic databases. This database could be used by researchers to better understand the relationship between certain patients and their health.

[See also: UPMC's big data approach slashes readmissions.]

As part of the study, more than 1,000 patients consented to sharing both their social media and health data over a seven-month period. Researchers then analyzed the data, which consisted of some 1.4 million tweets and posts, from 2009 to present.

"We dont 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 Raina M. Merchant, MD, the study's lead author and director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, in an Oct. 13 statement. "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. There is a rich potential to identify health trends both in the general public and at the individual level, create education campaigns and interventions, and much more. One of the unique aspects of this data is the ability to link social media data with validated information from a health record."

[See also: 7 pain points of big data and Partners' CIO on big hope for big data.]

This type of database, as Merchant explained, can help her team think about health in new, innovative ways. Some of the posted content included statements like, "I forgot to take my water pill for my heart failure today." Certain language, researchers explained, may be suggestive of cognitive decline or mental status. Other social media posts they saw included a string of high-sodium food photos or insight into health practices such as exercise habits.