We are currently in the midst of one of the worst influenza epidemics in recent years. The flu has caused over 2,000 hospitalizations and 18 deaths. Dehydration from having the flu is even to blame for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent collapse, hospitalization and resulting blood clot. So how do we avoid the same fate as Hillary? While the most tried-and-true methods of staying healthy are still washing your hands frequently and getting your flu vaccine, researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the Twittersphere could also be used in the battle against the flu.
In a paper being presented at the 2013 Association of Computing Machinery Conference on Web Based Searching and Data Mining , Dr. Adam Sadilek of Rochester University has shown that by tracking the Tweets of over 6 million New Yorkers from 2010, he was able to predict which tweeters would develop the flu with a 90% accuracy rate. The predictions where primarily based on the tweeters comments about their own health, like “think I have a fever” or “ugh hate being sick”, and the proximity of individuals to other Tweeters that may have the flu.
While events like the Revolution in Libya have already demonstrated the immense social power of networks like Twitter, Dr. Sadilek’s results show that the same power could be harnessed by the Healthcare Community to better understand how an epidemic spreads, something previously only accomplished by sifting through medical records and analyzing data after an epidemic has occurred. Another benefit is that Twitter is used throughout the World, meaning it could be used on an international scale to monitor global epidemics, disaster zones, and food shortages to make sure that aid gets to those who need it most.
Using Twitter as a healthcare tool is not without its disadvantages. Many Twitter users may not want their posts used in a study and feel collecting data on their health via Twitter is an invasion of their privacy, and could potentially affect their future job prospects or ability to get health insurance. Normally in the United States a person’s healthcare information is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which prevents medical professionals from sharing your healthcare information or using it in a study without your consent. HIPAA does not extend to social media since individuals are willingly and publicly posting their own information.
So while nothing can replace the protective benefits of hand sanitizer and a flu shot (seriously everyone GET YOUR FLU SHOT), research like Dr. Sadilek’s shows that in the right hands, social media sources like Twitter can be used for much more than posting funny pictures of dogs and announcing celebrity pregnancies.
For more information on Social Media and Healthcare, read this article on HealthITNews, 5 Keys to the Legal Issues of Social Media in Healthcare.