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Using Twitter to Tackle Cardiovascular Disease

When you think of Twitter, a zillion things probably come to mind — breaking news, personal rants, life observations — but health research probably isn’t one of them. However, the Penn Social Media and Health Innovation Lab is changing that, one tweet at a time… or rather, millions of tweets at a time, thanks to an impressive cross-campus collaboration currently underway looking at Twitter conversations around cardiovascular disease.

So, let’s break this down a bit…

Twitter CV Health blog imageThe first piece is cardiovascular disease, which encompasses a variety of problems caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, affects more than 80 million adults, and is the number one cause of death in the United States. In fact, more people die each year from cardiovascular disease than from all forms of cancers combined.

The second piece is Twitter, the world’s leading microblogging site, with 288 million active monthly users and 500 million (140-word or less) tweets sent each day!

And the third piece is Penn, a hub for data science research, with 141 research centers and institutes. The Penn research community includes more than 4,300 faculty, over 1,100 postdoctoral fellows and 5,500 academic support staff and graduate student trainees.

Put these three elements together and magic is sure to unfold… or at least some really incredible research findings. Just ask the folks at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) grant funding office, who recently awarded a three-year $1.5 million grant to Penn to study the conversation on Twitter about cardiovascular disease — the first grant of its kind.

“This grant illustrates a groundswell of interest in connecting social media and big data to improve health outcomes,” said Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, who’s leading the project. “Social media research in healthcare is still early compared to how it’s being used in other fields, but there is definitely a larger trend here.”

The project has several distinct goals:

  • Characterize tweets related to cardiovascular disease (i.e., what condition is being discussed and what are the symptoms, behaviors and outcomes);
  • Measure the correlation between the known epidemiology (patterns, causes and effects) of these conditions and those reported via Twitter; and
  • Conduct a randomized controlled trial to determine which Twitter messages resonate with patients with heart disease; and can help with disease management.

Previous projects at the intersection of social media and healthcare have done things like flag flu outbreaks, track sentiment about the Affordable Care Act, and predict heart disease or depression based on tweets, but Merchant says, “This project is really focused on using Twitter more for intervention, not just passive learning.”

According to Lyle Ungar, PhD, professor of Computer and Information Science, whose research focuses on the use of social media to understand the psychology of individuals and communities, “We tend to think of health problems as being treated by drugs, but people can do a lot to improve their health through behaviors.” He says that in the short term, the focus is on collecting data (looking at billions of tweets!) and building the systems to automatically look for patterns, but the long term goal is intervention — helping people improve their health. “The key to treatment is changing behaviors,” he adds.

Ungar represents just one of several Penn groups that are involved in this cross-disciplinary project. The collaboration includes the Perelman School of Medicine (Merchant, David Asch, MD, MBA, Nandita Mitra, PhD, and Fran Barg, PhD, MEd), the School of Nursing (Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA), the Wharton School (Jack Hershey, PhD), and the School of Engineering and Applied Science (Ungar and H. Andrew Schwartz, PhD).

“Accelerations in science are going to come from having this kind of collaboration, and Penn is where this is happening,” said Merchant.

It’s an exciting time for using social media to gather health information, and this latest grant is certainly proof of that. Perhaps Merchant sums it up best by saying, “Twitter has been identified as a really powerful tool, but we’re just at the beginning of figuring out how we can use it.”

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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