health care

More study needed to measure Twitter’s health impact

Posted 1/28/13

PROVIDENCE – In her commentary published in the journal, “Resuscitation,” Dr. Megan Ramsey, an emergency room physician at Rhode Island Hospital, challenged a recently published study lauding the use of Twitter to disseminate public health information.

“Social media has grown exponentially in a very short period of time,” Ranney said. “But as health care providers, we must be sure to use it responsibly, to be sure the information we share is accurate. Anyone can open a Twitter account, and they can post anything. If no one is monitoring it, then misinformation could get into the wrong hands. Then who is responsible?”

Ranney noted that the original paper does not begin to answer whether targeted messaging on Twitter actually improves knowledge or outcomes, and more study is warranted.

So far, Twitter has been used for public health information primarily in three areas: tracking disease trends, particularly pandemics such as the flu; coordination of disaster response, such as during Hurricane Sandy; and the dissemination of health-related information to specific patient populations by physicians and other practitioners. Twitter reports more than 500 million registered users, tweeting in 20 languages with 400 million tweets each day.

“Twitter users may intentionally or unintentionally disseminate misinformation during a crisis,” Ranney said. “An example of this is the tweet that claimed the New York Stock Exchange was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and the media’s use of this tweet to inform the public. The information proved to be false, therefore raising the risk of increased panic during an already stressful time.”

Ranney said that more information is needed to measure the impact of social media as a public health information tool, including the tweet’s “reach” – how many people see the tweet, how many followers retweet it, and how many people does the retweet reach, as well as whether or not the original message changed when retweeted.

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