Measuring Disease Trends through Social Media




Nichole Knupp is a freelance blogger and marketing professional who writes guest posts and website content for a variety of different blogs and niches that interest her.


People in the field of Medicine, those in Master´s in Public Health programs (see examples here and here) or in other disciplines such as Biostatistics (see previous post on the topic) might wonder how social media can play a valid role in their career.  While social media has taken the world by storm, it has mostly been thought of as a tool for sharing personal information, marketing, or keeping up on the latest gossip.  However, after this past flu season, those in the medical and scientific fields are finding a whole new way to use information that is trending.  Here are just a few of the things that social media is doing to benefit our health and sciences community.

Measuring Disease Trends
One of the terms being used for those watching and tracking the spread of illnesses through social media is “social media analytics” (see for instance, social network analysis).  Quite simply, it is tracking outbreaks of various viruses through mining social media.  This past season, people were following the spread of influenza through a flu hash tag (#flu).  Viruses such as H1N1 and the Swine Flu were able to be monitored on Twitter.  Further, they found when information was extracted efficiently, it was accurate and there was even a possibility of forecasting further trends.  The most pertinent information though, was what was happening in the present.  Different agencies were able to find what area was the hardest hit and who was at risk.

Public Interest and Concerns
The health and sciences community also found social media to be a great platform in finding out how interested the public was in disease outbreaks and trends.  It was also a way to gather concerns so various agencies could address them.  Social media is utilized by people as a way to have their voices heard through an outlet that is part of their daily lives.  While some people are unwilling to sit down and answer a survey, important information can be gathered by what is mentioned on daily Twitter streams.

Disease Outbreaks and Travel
Since social media is a tool that is being used worldwide, it has also been helpful in tracking outbreaks abroad.  US citizens, and others traveling, can easily be informed through public social media announcements.  Currently there are conversations happening on how best to use the information gathered on social media, and what role it will play in informing the public and addressing questions and concerns. (A very interesting article on the topic can be found here).

Social Media Sources
While Twitter has been the main source used for tracking trends, Instagram, Facebook, and Google Trends also play a part.  Some places to look if you’re interested in seeing how it all works is checking out the HealthMap stream on Twitter (@healthmap), do a Google Trends “flu” search, or try a flu hash tag search (#flu) on Twitter.

It’s not hard to imagine the possibilities and many other things we will be able to track in the future, but one thing is already certain— there is a use for social media if you work in the medical sciences, Public Health, Biostatistics,…


5 thoughts on “Measuring Disease Trends through Social Media

  1. Pingback: …a scientific crowd | FreshBiostats

  2. Thanks for this! Let us not forget that tracking infectious diseases through social media is not without caveats. News broadcasting and reporting, hype so to speak, caused a spike in #flu tweets which subsequently was misread by google’s flu tracker. This goes to show that modeling & forecasting is still a work in progress but nevertheless a new, useful tool.

  3. Thank you! We completely agree that this fast big data transmission requires careful analysis and control for different biases. Trending topics should be seen as indicative but further epidemiological investigations would always be required to get a truly accurate picture of diseases.

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