Using social media to understand emerging trends in digital health

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The COVID-19 pandemic led to a boom in digital health. As many services moved online, social media sites became venues for health care professionals to discuss pressing issues in their field. A new study co-authored by Dr. Karima Lalani, PhD, director of Health Informatics and Health Information Management programs, and her colleagues, Dr. David Marc at The College of St. Scholastica, Dr. Susan Fenton at UTHealth Houston, and Dr. Kerryn Butler-Henderson at Charles Sturt University in Australia uses a surprising source to glean trends in digital health: tweets.

The team analyzed 82,001 tweets from between 2012 and 2022 originating from 48 Twitter accounts of International Medical Informatics Association (IMIA) Fellows. “Our study results showed that the topics covered during this period focused on patient safety, errors, digital health, data, professional gatherings, and COVID-19,” Dr. Lalani said. 

Using statistical methods, the team determined that the sentiment in these tweets was largely positive, but the sentiment became sharply negative during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, “risk” and “issue” supplanted “cancer” and “error” as the most commonly used negative terms. Intriguingly, the existential topics “God” and “time” became more prevalent in 2021 and 2022.

While Twitter can be a hotbed of misinformation, this study reveals that it can also be used to glean insights into major topics and trends in health IT. “The findings from our study can be strategically used to help shape health IT thought leadership in the post-pandemic landscape, and future work can use data gleaned from tweets to understand what are the critical topics that health IT professionals are interested in globally,” Dr. Lalani reflects.

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