Analysis of Millions of Tweets Used to Derive Physician Opinion on Health Issues

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Kaiser Permanente held an event today in Washington, D.C. to discuss the alignment, and in many cases the nonalignment, of the kinds of health care-related information that different groups are posting to the web. At the event, American Voices  ― Aligned for Health, Greg Matthews, group director at communications firm WCG, presented data from WCG’s most recent MDigitalLife study.

MDigitalLife analyzed more than two million physician tweets with an objective that differed from most other previous social media studies relating to physicians. Rather than looking at the data for usage trends, the group examined the content of the tweets to extract physicians’ opinions on certain health care topics.

Matthews and his team also used the data to determine the most talked about health subjects on Twitter by physicians. Then they went two steps further and compared this to the most talked about health subjects by both news media outlets as well as United States members of Congress.

First when MDigitalLife studied just the physician database, it found that 80% of the tweets analyzed were about treatment, research and prevention, and the rest were about policy or business. The statistic suggests that doctors are more interested in tweeting educational material than anything else.

That certainly doesn’t indicate that all are strictly sharing information in a neutral fashion online. Matthews dove into an example of what happened last May when the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommend against routinely screening for prostate cancer using the prostate-specific antigen test. This resulted in a huge spike in the volume of tweets about prostate cancer by physicians.

“What we saw was that most of the doctors, the majority didn’t express an opinion ― they were just passing along the news. But for those who did express an opinion, they were three to one against that report,” Matthews said.

As for the comparison between the kinds of information physicians, journalists and politicians are circulating around the web, the differences were distinct. It’s first worth mentioning how MDigitalLife obtained its results. Matthews pointed out that it’s difficult to derive data from tweets alone given that there are only 140 characters to work with. That’s why the research team also had to pay attention to each of the articles that users linked to.

These numbers totaled to more than 200,000 pieces of information tweeted by physicians, 36,300 articles written by journalists, and more than 71,000 links posted by Congress members. The analysis concluded that doctors overwhelmingly focus on health education. Journalists focus on business, which accounted for 33% of the health care articles they wrote, and 66% of politicians’ tweets were about policy.

Matthews said the need for this kind of research was recently reemphasized by the results of a Pew Internet and American Life Project report. While it’s already known that large numbers of people are online looking for health information, Pew’s research found that 35% of U.S. adults have gone online to diagnose a medical condition.

That percentage is concerning given the amount of spam and misinformation that lives on the web, and that’s why it’s important to coordinate the way that health care information is delivered, Matthews said. “It’s all about trying to figure out how can we, as integral parts of the health care system, align our communications in such a way that the American public is able to find and access the information that they need.”

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