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Monday 24th October 2016

Researchers track ailments on Twitter

12th July 2011

US researchers have been mining the microblogging site Twitter to try to gauge the state of the nation's health.


The researchers from Johns Hopkins University's computer science department looked at a total of 1.5 million tweets related to health sent between May 2009 and October 2010.

They concluded that Twitter could become a useful source of information about health, although it also had limitations.

On the one hand, reading health-related tweets gave some insight into how Twitter users regarded a slew of health problems and how they approached their ailments.

Many apparently reported taking the wrong medication for common ailments, however.

Researcher and PhD student Michael J. Paul said some of the tweets displayed miconceptions about medical science.

For example, many people reported taking antibiotics for the 'flu', a viral infection which is left untouched by antibiotics, which target bacteria.

Doctors could spot warning signs of a growing antibiotic resistance problems by studying these tweets, Paul said.

The researchers collated health-related updates using a specially designed filtering tool.

The programme was able to distinguish between phrases that contained apparently health-related words, like "headache", in a non-healthcare context.

Around 200,000 of the tweets had published information about the sender's location, making health information trackable geographically.

They were able to track certain health trends across the country.

From studying Twitter, they concluded that the allergy season began earlier in the warmer states and later in the Midwest and Northeastern United States.

But the team, which included Professor Mark Dredze, also said there was a limit to what could be gleaned from tweets alone.

Often, people with health problems would only comment once about an ailment, meaning that the possibilities for follow-up were extremely limited.

Paul said researchers ultimately could only learn what people were willing to share.

He said the public nature of Twitter meant people might not be comfortable sharing much information about their state of health.

Among the most commonly tweeted problems were pain, insomnia, obesity, allergies, depression and cancer.

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