Twitter alerts cardiologist on public heart health data

Twitter is a great platform to share information and opinions—and in many cases, waste time. But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania saw a potentially different use: tracking real-time changes in how the public discusses cardiovascular disease.

Their findings, published in JAMA Cardiology, show that Twitter has the potential to be used as a data source for studying public communication about cardiovascular health.

From an initial sample of 10 billion Tweets ranging from July 23, 2009 to February 5, 2015 researchers searched for keywords associated with the following five cardiovascular diseases: hypertension, diabetes, myocardial infarction, heart failure and cardiac arrest. A set of search terms to cross reference with the tweets was identified based on language from the Consumer Health Vocabulary and the Unified Medical Language System.

Researchers also mapped the tweets’ locations and collected data from each user’s account, including the number of friends and followers.

The results showed that 4.9 million tweets were associated with cardiovascular disease. Diabetes and myocardial infarction represented more than 200,000 tweets each, which heart failure was mentioned in fewer than 10,000 tweets.

In terms of Twitter users, the demographic tended to be older than the general population of Twitter users, with a median age of 28. Those users tweeting about cardiovascular disease were also more likely to be female than the average Twitter user.

Twitter users were also most likely to tweet health-related information, with risk factors for cardiovascular disease being the most common topic of conversation. Approximately one-fourth of all tweets discussed awareness, typically involving fundraising for more research and better treatment of the disease.

From the data researchers concluded that Twitter is a useful tool for studying public communication about cardiovascular disease. While still in its infancy, the value and direct applications of the social media platform warrant further exploration.