Washington: Twitter allows millions of social media fans to comment in 140 characters or less on just about anything - from an actor's outlandish behaviour to an earthquake's tragic toll. But by sifting through this busy flood of banter, is it possible to also track important public health trends? Two Johns Hopkins University computer scientists would respond with a one-word tweet: 'Yes!'
Mark Dredze and Michael J. Paul fed two billion public tweets posted between May 2009 and October 2010 into computers, and then used software to filter out the 1.5 million messages that referred to health matters.
Identities of the tweeters were not collected by Dredze, assistant research professor of computer science, and Paul, a doctoral student, according to a Hopkins statement.
'Our goal was to find out whether Twitter posts could be a useful source of public health information,' Dredze said.
'We determined that indeed, they could. In some cases, we probably learned some things that even the tweeters' doctors were not aware of, like which over-the-counter medicines the posters were using to treat their symptoms at home,' he added.
By sorting these health-related tweets into electronic 'piles', Dredze and Paul uncovered intriguing patterns about allergies, flu cases, insomnia, cancer, obesity, depression, pain and other ailments.
'When we started, I didn't even know if people talked about allergies on Twitter,' Paul said. 'But we found out that they do.'
Besides finding a range of health ailments, researchers were able to record many of the medications that ill tweeters consumed, thanks to posts such as: 'Had to pop a Benadryl...allergies are the worst.'
Other tweets pointed to misuse of medicine. 'We found that some people tweeted that they were taking antibiotics for the flu,' Paul said.
'But antibiotics don't work on the flu, which is a virus, and this practice could contribute to the growing antibiotic resistance problems. So these tweets showed us that some serious medical misperceptions exist out there,' he added.