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Penn Medicine Researchers Turn to Twitter for Helpful Revelations on an Emerging Addiction Crisis

Twitter_RXOver the past several years, sales of prescription opioid painmedications have more than tripled in the United States. At the same time,researchers have noticed a parallel rise in opioid addiction, overdose,emergency department (ED) visits, and death from these drugs.

Despite these rising figures, addiction to prescription opioidsis still widely misunderstood by the medical community and many of the factorsthat play into a person’s path to abusing these drugs, due in part to theillegal and taboo nature of the problem, are kept secret.

Doctors and other addiction specialists are desperate tofind clues into how the line between appropriate use and addiction becomesblurred and now they are turning to social media messages to better understand theroots of this dangerous epidemic.

“As an emergency medicine physician, I am greatly concerned about misuse andabuse of prescription opioids,” said JeanmariePerrone, MD, associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn and seniorauthor of a new study presented last week at the American College of EmergencyPhysicians (ACEP) Scientific Assembly that used social media to gain information into this mounting prescription drug epidemic.

“I see firsthand the devastating effects that abuse andoverdose of these drugs have on patients and their families.  But I’m also at a loss as to how many of mypatients hit bottom. We wanted to see if a social networking platform such asTwitter would give us some new insights into how people are using thesemedications and whether their own tweets would reveal tools to help us fightthis growing problem.”

Perrone, who is also the Director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Penn, and her research team set out to assess prescriptionopioid tweets in order to characterize their content according to whetherpeople were using the medications as directed or abusing them and if people weredescribing their use in positive or negative terms. They also sought to identifycommon themes in the tweets.

After analyzing over 2,100 tweets sent during a one week timespan for specific key words, they found that many of these messages were about prescription opioidsabuse.  They also discovered that abuseof these medications was described favorably in the majority of tweets.  In terms of common themes, many of the tweetsdescribed trips to the ED and dental offices as the source of obtaining themedications.

“For example, one tweet we reviewed said ‘My wisdom teeth surgery was not that bad,and now I have a jar of vicodin #partyatmyhouse.’  This is obviously a concerning message andsignals to us that patients need better education about the serious effects andpotential for abuse that these medications have. From this review, we believethat Twitter can be used as a valuable resource as we seek to better identify trendsand improve our understanding of prescription pain medication use and abuse,”Perrone says.

In ongoing research, Perrone and colleagues are analyzingadditional keywords and a larger number of tweets to continue to track usabletrends. They are also interested in developing and implementing an automated,natural language search tool that will help with future surveillance efforts.

For more information, read Dr. Perrone’s interviewwith Medscape about her presentation at the ACEP meeting.  


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