Twitter Overrated for Helping Us Stay Healthy—RI Hospital Expert

Saturday, January 26, 2013


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No one can dispute the remarkable growth and reach of Twitter--but is it really all it's cracked up to be when it comes to broadcasting health-related information?

Do you turn to Twitter for health information? If you saw a “tweet” – a 140-character message on Twitter – telling you what to do if you see someone having a heart attack, would it help you?

Rhode Island Hospital emergency medicine physician Megan Ranney, M.D., has written a commentary in response to a recently published paper that lauds the use of Twitter as a vital tool to disseminate public health information. Ranney’s commentary, which is available online in advance of print in the journal Resuscitation, challenges the paper and encourages additional study.

“Social media has grown exponentially in a very short period of time,” Ranney said. “But as health care providers, we must be sure to use it responsibly, to be sure the information we share is accurate. Anyone can open a Twitter account, and they can post anything. If no one is monitoring it, then misinformation could get into the wrong hands. Then who is responsible?”

Tweeting health

So far, Twitter has been used for public health information primarily in three areas: tracking disease trends, particularly pandemics such as the flu; coordination of disaster response, such as during Hurricane Sandy; and the dissemination of health-related information to specific patient populations by physicians and other practitioners. Twitter reports more than 500 million registered users, tweeting in 20 languages with 400 million tweets each day.

“Twitter users may intentionally or unintentionally disseminate misinformation during a crisis,” Ranney said. “An example of this is the tweet that claimed the New York Stock Exchange was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and the media’s use of this tweet to inform the public. The information proved to be false, therefore raising the risk of increased panic during an already stressful time.”

How far does the Twitter bird really fly?

More information is needed to measure the impact of social media as a public health information tool, including the tweet’s “reach” --  how many people see the tweet, how many followers retweet it and how many people does the retweet reach; and is the original message changed when retweeted.

Ranney noted that the original paper does not begin to answer whether targeted messaging on Twitter actually improves knowledge or outcomes, and more study is warranted.


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