What social media postings can reveal about health concerns

Topics shared on popular sites can help providers target groups, says Vagelis Hristidis.

There are significant regional, demographic and educational differences in the content that Americans post online when they share and search for health-related information on social media.

That’s the finding of University of California-Riverside researchers who analyzed more than 20 million posts generated by about 6 million users using social media, including general web-based social networks Twitter and GooglePlus, drug review websites, as well as online health forums.

Researchers contend that the results, published this week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, represent the first large-scale, data-driven study to track the health content posted by different demographic groups, which provide valuable information that can help create effective healthcare-related outreach to specific types of consumers engaged in social media.

Among the findings of the analysis:
  • Gender: pregnancy is the dominant topic for female users in drug review websites and health web forums, whereas for male users, it is cardiac problems, HIV, and back pain. But, this is not the case for Twitter, where men talked more about their reproductive systems (using words like ‘prostate’ and ‘testicular’), tumors, AIDS and health insurance, whereas women talked about headache and emotion.
  • Age: younger users (0-17 years) mainly talk about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression-related drugs, users aged 35-44 years discuss about multiple sclerosis (MS) drugs, and middle-aged users (45-64 years) talk about alcohol and smoking.
  • Regional: users from the Northeast United States talk about physical disorders, such as diabetes and heart conditions, in the Midwest users discuss weight loss, whereas in the South they post about fibromyalgia, while users from the Western U.S. talk about mental disorders and addictive behaviors.

“Our findings can help healthcare practitioners connect with the right people in the right places to deliver targeted educational campaigns, enable marketers to advertise products to the right audiences, and help researchers examine preventable differences in how people understand diseases and fix these disparities,” says Vagelis Hristidis, a professor of computer science and engineering in UC-Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering.

To reach pregnant or trying-to-get-pregnant women, the UC-Riverside researchers recommended that educational campaigns healthcare providers and public health officials go to online health forums and drug review websites instead of GooglePlus. “This finding is supported by the fact that drug review websites and health web forums are dominated by female users,” states the JMIR article.

According to Hristidis, the month-long big data analysis by UC-Riverside researchers leveraged 10 computers that analyzed several types of collected demographic information, including gender, age, location and—where possible—ethnicity. Twitter and GooglePlus were the only sites that allowed for data analysis by ethnicity.

In terms of ethnicity, white and Hispanic Twitter users talked about fibromyalgia, while Hispanic users also discussed headaches and sleeplessness, and Asian users discussed heart and kidney diseases. However, Hristidis notes that Twitter and GooglePlus posts were related less to users’ own health and more often referred to a news story or awareness campaign that was trending on the site.

“When people post on GooglePlus or Twitter, they are posting from their own accounts and under their own names, so they are less likely to post personal information about their health status,” he concludes. “A popular approach among web forum users is to create a pseudonym, which enables people to share their own experiences.”

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