Twitter “may be useful” for researching how general public discuss cardiovascular disease

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Raina Merchant Credit: Allan Hunter Shoemake used with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Raina Merchant
Credit: Allan Hunter Shoemake used with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Lauren Sinnenberg (@lsinnie Penn Medicine Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA) and others report in JAMA Cardiology that Twitter may be a useful tool for studying public communications about cardiovascular disease. They found that through the social networking site, they were able to identify 550,338 US-based tweets (of a sample of 10 billion) that were about cardiovascular disease and found that common topics discussed were risk factors, awareness, and management.

Sinnenberg et al comment that social networking sites such as Twitter “allow researchers to systematically witness public communication about health, including cardiovascular disease”, but add that there are “several unknowns” when using social media for these purposes. These unknowns, according to the authors, include whether “is it possible to separate signal from noise?” and “can the data be analysed to characterise features associated with person posting and the tweet itself?”. “We explored these questions by characterising a sample of Tweets about cardiovascular disease form the United States,” Sinnenberg et al write.

They reviewed data from a 10% sample—a “Twitter decahose”—of tweets posted between July 2009 and February 2015 and from a 1% sample—a “Twitter spritzer”—of the remaining tweets. In particular, the authors searched for five keywords related to cardiovascular disease: hypertension, diabetes, myocardial infarction, heart failure, and cardiac arrest. Only tweets that were in English and were posted in a country in the USA were included in the study.

Of an initial sample of 10 billion tweets, 550,338 were identified as being about cardiovascular disease, from the USA, and in English. Of these, more than 200,000 were about diabetes and/or myocardial infarction while less than 10,000 were about heart failure. Sinnenberg et al comment: “Peaks in tweet rate were associated most often with thematically connected events reported in the news.” They add that people tweeted about how cardiovascular disease affected them or their relatives, products related to cardiovascular disease (in the form of sponsored tweets), and even jokes about cardiovascular disease—with one person tweeting “the worse time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades”. Furthermore, the authors also found that the cardiovascular disease tweeters (based on their user profiles) were older and less likely to be male than the general population.

Sinnenberg et al note that their study has three key findings: they were able to identify US-based tweets about cardiovascular disease; they were able to characterise the volume, content, style and sender of the tweets “demonstrating the ability to identify signal from noise”; and third, they were to find data (on Twitter) that reflected real-time changes in discussion of a disease topic. “Twitter may be useful for studying public communication about cardiovascular disease. The use of Twitter for clinical research is still in its infancy. Its value and direct applications remain to be seen and warrant further exploration.”

Study author Raina M Merchant (@RainaMerchant Penn Medicine Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA) told Cardiovascular News: “While this study focused on Twitter, there is great potential for exploring other social media platforms to better understand what the public is thinking and posting about health related topics.”