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Can Social Media Predict Disease Outbreaks?

Epidemic Tracking in Uncertain Times…

Sounds crazy to think that your Twitter or Facebook posts, the things you hashtag, along with your search engine queries, could be giving public health researchers many predictors of illness and disease in real time…right?

But it’s true:

No longer do scientists and researchers have to spend so much time digging for data through less efficient means. With Internet analytics, especially social media information, health care providers can monitor the overall health and sudden changes fairly easily.

Who knew epidemiologists would be using Twitter to track disease outbreaks?

Anyone who has used Google Analytics on a website understands how data tracking works. With the right software you can figure out where users are, what keywords and searches they performed, and many other qualitative and quantitative pieces of information.

In the case of social media tracking illness and disease, social post searches can reveal the types of illnesses, where the populations of affected people reside, and what information they are most absorbing.

How Can Social Media Help Prevent The Spread of Disease?

Having these types of clues can help government agencies, and independent epidemiologists, understand how to allocate resources necessary for fighting and preventing illness and disease.

Twitter is one network that has given scientists good reason to believe social media disease tracking is worth researching. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service analyzed keywords in association with the flu to create a predictive model. Use of certain keywords would help determine how severe the flu would be in any area.

However, this study also warned to be wary of media hyped epidemics. When the media is over-reporting on flu season, more people tend to visit their doctor, perform searches for symptoms, and set off some false alarms in the data.

To help inform the public and give people a centrally located source for objective information—structured planning and response on social media is the best tool local health centers can create for their communities.

Using social media and disease surveillance, sites such as healthmap.org pulls the latest news, alerts and other important public information into one place. That site is considered a social media tool, and also offers users an app they can download to their phone.

A well run social media site can help spread the word about how to prevent spread of disease, when to seek treatment for symptoms, as can assist in prediction of spread and severity. Just look at all the @WHO twitter account does in this arena—on a global scale!

Scientists can also use data found in tweets and posts to understand if consumers are having positive or negative reactions or opinions to forms of medicine and treatment. It’s also a way to identify whether certain companies or institutions are adhering to quality of care guidelines specific to the outbreak at healthcare facilities.

Going Beyond Epidemiology…

There is also a range of social media analyzing software that can keyword track sentiments in all corners of the net. You can bet all kinds of healthcare organizations are tracking consumer and public sentiment towards their products and brands. It’s the kind of market research that used to cost millions of dollars in research, consumer surveys and tests that the company would have to organize and pay for. But with the public’s natural knack for over-sharing about everything, it makes sense that this data exists. After all, how many times have you scrolled past what one of your friends is eating for lunch, followed by an update about a customer service experience another one of your friends just had, followed by the latest cat pic from that one friend…

Well…you get it.

What Is The Future Role Of Social Media in Public Health?

Studies are being conducted to track several types of disease, such as influenza, swine flu, HIV, Ebola and many others. These tests will continue to get more targeted and complex as data analytics become more sophisticated in coming years.

Suffice it to say, we’ve seen only the beginning of what we can do to combat the spread of disease as social media posts go viral…ya, we said it.

To learn more about how you can track outbreaks you may want to look into Epidemiology programs or, if you like the analytics and web side of it, look into new and novel Health Information Technology programs in your area.

Get on the front wave of this intriguing new trend by contacting schools today.

Have you seen a trend on social media that connected with healthcare trends you’ve noticed? If so, share your experiences and insights with @healthadmdegree today!

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