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How Social Media Can Improve Public Health, Patient Education

Twitter may be a useful tool to disseminate public health and patient education messages, so long as agencies use it at peak conversation time.

By Sara Heath

Understanding online discussion trends may be helpful in disseminating patient education and public health messages about mental and behavioral health via Twitter, found a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

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Mental illness affects many Americans, with 4 percent of adults reporting suicidal thoughts in 2013 and 7 percent reporting symptoms of major depression.

Yet depression is still attached to considerable stigma, the researchers explained. This stigma makes it challenging for public health agencies to successfully educate audiences.

“In the context of the evolving mental health–related policy environment, targeted and effective messaging could have a significant impact on how people view mental illness, as well as on the need for and sources of mental health prevention and treatment,” the researchers explained.

Twitter presents an opportunity for public health agencies to conduct patient and community education efforts.

“Although the Twitter population comprises only a moderate fraction of the adult population, the reach of tweets has far broader impact through social multiplier effects,” the researchers said.

Twitter users make up approximately 18 percent of the nation’s population; however, unless users mark themselves as private, their messages are open for public view, retweets, responses, and hashtags.

In order to better assess the feasibility of Twitter as an educational platform, the research team analyzed the volume of mental health-related tweets between Jan. 1 2011, and Nov. 28, 2014. The research team sought to test a model to predict when public health agencies would be best served issuing educational statements.

The timing of public health messages is important, the researchers asserted, so this model could potentially help agencies better target their patient outreach.

Within the research period, the team saw a series of small spikes in mental health conversation over Twitter. These spikes produced a lower volume of tweets, but were more constant.

The researchers also identified four significant spikes between 2011 and 2014, including World Suicide Prevention Day in 2012, Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign in Canada in 2013 and 2014, and Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014.

Scheduled campaigns such as World Suicide Prevention Day and the Let’s Talk Campaign, while producing a high volume of conversation, did not last as long. Unexpected events, such as the death of Robin Williams, produced both a high volume of tweets and prolonged conversation.

These findings may help public health agencies determine a course of action for patient outreach and engagement strategies. Agencies can prepare outreach campaigns to issue during these events, and cater different messages for different kinds of events, depending upon their goals and nature of their message.

Overall, the researchers said their findings have significant implications for using an analysis model to predict social media conversations for public health outreach.

“In particular, our analysis of 176 million tweets from 2011 to 2014 for search terms related to depression or suicide gives an understanding of what the number of mentions of depression and suicide ‘should’ be,” the researchers said.

“Ongoing use of this data analysis model could enable professionals to monitor these trends and quickly recognize and respond when an exogenous event has created increased interest in mental health issues.”

However, these findings may just be limited to Twitter use and not applicable to other social media platforms or patient outreach media. Twitter users are a relatively small population, the researchers conceded, filled with a generally younger patient demographic.

The researchers hope the high shareability of Twitter messages and its cultural relevance will mitigate those limitations, making the analysis viable for other public health and patient outreach efforts. Ideally, this analysis strategy could be applied to other healthcare concerns.

Additionally, these findings may be applicable to other patient education and community outreach efforts outside of mental and behavioral health.

“This study shows that comprehensive trend analysis of social media is an important research area that can be extended to almost any health condition,” the researchers said.

“Monitoring online health discussions in this manner offers valuable insights into public health conditions that are not typically available through more traditional methods.”

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