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Dissemination of health information through social networks: Twitter and antibiotics

      Background

      This study reviewed Twitter status updates mentioning “antibiotic(s)” to determine overarching categories and explore evidence of misunderstanding or misuse of antibiotics.

      Methods

      One thousand Twitter status updates mentioning antibiotic(s) were randomly selected for content analysis and categorization. To explore cases of potential misunderstanding or misuse, these status updates were mined for co-occurrence of the following terms: “cold + antibiotic(s),” “extra + antibiotic(s),” “flu + antibiotic(s),” “leftover + antibiotic(s),” and “share + antibiotic(s)” and reviewed to confirm evidence of misuse or misunderstanding.

      Results

      Of the 1000 status updates, 971 were categorized into 11 groups: general use (n = 289), advice/information (n = 157), side effects/negative reactions (n = 113), diagnosis (n = 102), resistance (n = 92), misunderstanding and/or misuse (n = 55), positive reactions (n = 48), animals (n = 46), other (n = 42), wanting/needing (n = 19), and cost (n = 8). Cases of misunderstanding or abuse were identified for the following combinations: “flu + antibiotic(s)” (n = 345), “cold + antibiotic(s)” (n = 302), “leftover + antibiotic(s)” (n = 23), “share + antibiotic(s)” (n = 10), and “extra + antibiotic(s)” (n = 7).

      Conclusion

      Social media sites offer means of health information sharing. Further study is warranted to explore how such networks may provide a venue to identify misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics, promote positive behavior change, disseminate valid information, and explore how such tools can be used to gather real-time health data.

      Key Words

      First coined in 2004, “Web 2.0” describes a change in the way people interact with information online, moving from passive consumption to active creation of content. Web 2.0 software harnesses network effects and knowledge in an open, interactive manner.
      • Hughes B.
      • Joshi I.
      • Wareham J.
      Health 2.0 and medicine 2.0: tensions and controversies in the field.
      It is now common to participate in social networking communities (eg, Facebook), social rating Web sites (eg, Digg), customer review Web sites (eg, Yelp), photo and video sharing networks (eg, Flickr and YouTube), blogs (eg, Huffington Post), and information aggregators (eg, Wikipedia). These platforms enable people to share their knowledge and experience, creating a rich array of user-generated content.

      The Experts vs the amateurs: a tug of war over the future of media. [email protected] 2009. March 19, 2008. Available from: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1921. Accessed April 17, 2009.

      Within this new construct, one's peers are an important source of information, with 47% of respondents in one survey reporting the information they receive from “a person like me” to be extremely or very credible, on par with their trust of industry experts.

      Edelman R. Edelman trust barometer 2009. Available from: http://www.edelman.com/trust/2009/docs/Trust_Book_Final_2.pdf. Accessed April 17, 2009.

      See Table 1: Social media tools, definitions, and examples.
      Table 1Social media tools, definitions, and examples
      TermDefinitionExample
      Blog (“weblog”)A Web site that contains regularly updated entries displayed in reverse chronological order

      Blog. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      General: Huffington Post, TechCrunch

      Health: WebMD Blogs, HealthLine Blogs,
      • Lagu T.
      • Kaufman E.J.
      • Asch D.A.
      • Armstrong K.
      Content of Weblogs written by health professionals.
      Biography of Breast Cancer
      • Boulos M.N.K.
      • Wheeler S.
      The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and health care education.
      MicroblogA form of blogging that allows users to send brief text updates or micromedia to be viewed by the public or a restricted group. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including mobile text messaging, online instant messaging, e-mail, digital audio, or the Web.

      Micro-blogging. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro-blogging. Accessed April 21, 2009.

      General: Twitter
      Social network Web siteOnline communities that share interests and/or activitiesGeneral: Facebook, MySpace

      Health: PatientsLikeMe, DailyStrength
      • Moturu S.T.
      • Liu H.
      • Johnson W.G.
      Trust evaluation in health information on the World Wide Web.
      WikiA Web site that enables the easy creation and editing of interlinking Web pages

      Wiki. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      General: Wikipedia

      Health: AskDrWiki, Ganfyd,
      • Moturu S.T.
      • Liu H.
      • Johnson W.G.
      Trust evaluation in health information on the World Wide Web.
      WikiSurgery
      • Lagu T.
      • Kaufman E.J.
      • Asch D.A.
      • Armstrong K.
      Content of Weblogs written by health professionals.
      Social news and bookmarkingSocial bookmarking enables users to save and share links to Web pages organized by metadata (eg, “tags,” or keywords). Social news sites often enable voting on links to news, to bring the most popular stories to the top.

      Social Bookmarking. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_bookmarking. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      General: Del.icio.us, Digg

      Health: Digg.com/Health
      User reviewsA Web site on which people can post opinions about people, businesses, products, or services

      Review Site. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Review_site. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      General: Epinions, Yelp

      Health: RateMDs
      • Cheung K.H.
      • Yip K.Y.
      • Townsend J.P.
      • Scotch M.
      HCLS 2.0/3.0: health care and life sciences data mashup using Web 2.0/3.0.
      Photo/video sharingA Web site that enables the publishing of a user's digital photos or video clips online, facilitating sharing with others

      Photo sharing. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photo_sharing. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      Video hosting service. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_hosting_service. Accessed August 4, 2009.

      General: YouTube, Flickr

      Health: ICYou
      • Moturu S.T.
      • Liu H.
      • Johnson W.G.
      Trust evaluation in health information on the World Wide Web.
      Not surprisingly, web 2.0 trends have extended to the health care arena, as those seeking health information online began disseminating their experiences and knowledge.
      • Moturu S.T.
      • Liu H.
      • Johnson W.G.
      Trust evaluation in health information on the World Wide Web.
      Collectively referred to as “medicine 2.0” or “health 2.0,” these trends are broadly defined as “the use of a specific set of Web tools (blogs, Podcasts, tagging, search, wikis, and others) by actors in health care including doctors, patients, and scientists, using principles of open source and generation of content by users, and the power of networks to personalize health care, collaborate, and promote health education.”
      • Hughes B.
      • Joshi I.
      • Wareham J.
      Health 2.0 and medicine 2.0: tensions and controversies in the field.
      A Pew study recently reported that 61% of American adults seek health information online, and 37% have accessed user-generated health information online. Sixty percent of e-patients (Internet users who have looked online for health information) reported that online inquiries had an impact on their health decisions. Forty-two percent of all adults say that they or someone they know has been helped by following medical advice or health information found on the Internet, a 43% increase since 2006; only 3% of all adults report that they or someone they know has been harmed.

      Fox S, Jones S. The social life of health information. Pew Internet & American Life Project 2009. June 2009. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information.aspx. Accessed April 20, 2009.

      The purpose of this paper is to report a content analysis of the large microblog “Twitter” to determine the main categories of content contained in Twitter users' status updates mentioning antibiotics and to explore cases of misunderstanding and misuse of antibiotics that might inform potential interventions and information campaigns.

      Methods

      Design

      We conducted a cross-sectional survey using content analysis of Twitter status updates between March 13, 2009, and July 31, 2009.

      Study setting

      The observational study applied content analysis to publicly available Twitter Web pages using the Web site www.Twitter.com. Twitter updates may be public, meaning content is viewable to any Web site visitor, or protected, meaning updates are not available on a public search and can only be viewed by approved users. Individuals can optionally identify their location, a 1-line biography, and language. Twitter also tracks and makes publicly available the number of people following the user; the number of people the user is following; and the number of status updates (“tweets”) the person has posted. Only publicly available data were used in this analysis. As of August 2009, approximately 94% of Twitter accounts were public, with that number trending upward.

      Moore RJ. Twitter data analysis: an investor's perspective. October 5, 2009. Available from: http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/10/05/twitter-data-analysis-an-investors-perspective/. November 23, 2009.

      See Table 2: Dictionary of Twitter-related terms.
      Table 2Dictionary of Twitter-related terms
      TermDefinition
      @replyA public message directed at another person, sent regardless of follow-ship
      DM (direct message)A private message that only the author and recipient can view, which can only be sent when the recipient follows the author.
      FollowWhen someone posts a new message, it appears in his/her followers' Twitter home page in real time. Updates can also be received by mobile phone.
      HashtagHashtags are a community-driven convention for adding groupings on Twitter by including metadata within tweets. A hashtag is created by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: “#.”
      RT (Retweet)“RT” is added to a tweet to indicate that it includes text from another person's tweet, optionally adding original content.
      TweetA Twitter update

      Search strategy

      Twitter features a search function to filter status updates that meet particular search criteria. Each individual search returns results from a variable time frame (approximately 1 week), depending on the storage capacity of Twitter's database. We included publicly available updates on Twitter that mentioned antibiotic(s) in English. No restrictions were placed on location or age. Twitter does not track age, but registrants to the service must certify that they are 13 years of age or older. We conducted 2 searches: 1 for “antibiotic” and 1 for “antibiotics,” on a weekly basis from March 13 to July 31, 2009. The combined results yielded a list of 52,153 status updates mentioning at least 1 of the search terms.

      Determining categories

      We applied Q-methodology
      • Webler T.
      • Danielson S.
      • Tuler S.
      Using Q method to reveal social perspectives in environmental research.
      to categorize the status updates. We downloaded an initial set of updates that mentioned “antibiotic” or “antibiotics” and then generated a list of 100 random updates intended to be sufficiently representative of the universe of antibiotic-related content expressed on Twitter.
      • Akhtar-Danesh N.
      • Baumann A.
      • Cordingley L.
      Q-methodology in nursing research: a promising method for the study of subjectivity.
      Three researchers separately evaluated the updates and inductively classified them into broad categories. The categories were then discussed to reach consensus, and 11 categories were initially determined: advertisements, advice/information, animals, cost, diagnosis, general use, other, positive feedback, resistance, side effects/negative reactions, and wanting/needing. This process was then repeated, applying the 11 categories to 2 new sets of 100 randomly selected status updates to ensure that the categories were sufficient and to further clarify category definitions.
      Based on this process, another category, labeled “misunderstanding and/or misuse,” was added to replace and subsume “advertisements,” given that all examples of advertisements were from illegitimate sources. With this new categorization, legitimate advertisements would have been categorized as “advice/information.” The “misunderstanding and/or abuse” category was utilized in the following specific cases: (1) references to using antibiotics to treat a virus, cold, or flu; (2) attempts to access or sell antibiotics without a prescription; (3) incorrect use; and (4) refusal to take antibiotics under any circumstances. Therefore, when a status update provided advice or information, a specific subset of those updates was categorized as “misunderstanding and/or abuse.” The rest were categorized as “advice/information,” including cases when the advice might be incorrect.

      Data collection

      Once categories were established, 1000 status updates were selected from the complete list of 52,153 status updates mentioning antibiotic(s) using the RC4 method for randomization.

      Rivest R. The RC4 encryption algorithm. RSA Data Security Inc. Proprietary. March 1992.

      Each status update was grouped into a single category by 2 researchers, with each reviewing half of the data set. Areas of ambiguity were discussed and agreed on by consensus. Status updates that used the term “antibiotic(s)” metaphorically (eg, “Turning benign symbiotes into vicious, antibiotic resistant bacteria dedicated to film industry destruction”) were removed. Some status updates included links; for cases in which content was ambiguous, the link was checked to clarify the user's intent. To assess inter-rater reliability, we recategorized a random sample of 10% of the status updates. The Cohen's κ statistic was used to measure the extent to which there was agreement in the categorization of status updates and determined a value of 0.73.
      We further mined the total list of 52,153 for updates that included the following phrases: “cold + antibiotic(s),” “extra + antibiotic(s),” “flu + antibiotic(s),” “leftover + antibiotic(s),” and “share + antibiotic(s).” Each update was reviewed for indication of misunderstanding and/or misuse of antibiotics. Updates that resulted from the search but which did not indicate misunderstanding or misuse were not included.
      We also recorded the number of followers for each Twitter user, the number of people the user was following, and the number of status updates the user had submitted, all standard information on a Twitter page. No attempts were made to contact individuals or obtain access to information set as private.

      Results

      Of the 1000 status updates, 29 were removed because they treated the word “antibiotic(s)” as a metaphor. For an overview of the resulting categorization, see Table 3: Antibiotic-related categories, definitions, examples, and frequencies from Twitter status updates.
      Table 3Antibiotic-related categories, definitions, examples, and frequencies from Twitter status updates
      CategoryDefinitionExampleFrequency
      General useCommenting generally on taking antibiotics“Got more antibiotics from doc. Hope these ones finally get rid of this cough”289 Updates
      Advice and informationOffering or seeking advice, information, or explanations regarding antibiotic use“Absolutely, it could mess up your stomach. A good rule of thumb with antibiotics is to ear [sic] a yogurt every time you take your dose.”157 Updates
      Side effects/negative reactionsClaiming or mentioning side effects from antibiotics, negative reactions, complaints“The antibiotic I took a while ago is killing my stomach … ugh!”113 Updates
      DiagnosisMentioning the reason for taking antibiotics“A dying tooth. Painkillers. Antibiotics. Root canal scheduled. Ahhh … the sweet curves life throws.”102 Updates
      ResistanceDiscussing resistance, including reference to antibiotics in farm animals“Dangers from overuse of antibiotic use in animal feed leading to MRSA outbreaks http://tinyurl.com/cqj638”92 Updates
      Misunderstanding and/or misuseReferencing viruses, cold, flu; attempts to access or sell antibiotics without a prescription; incorrect use; refusal to take antibiotics under any circumstances“Go get a shot, babe. Or some Murine ear drops from Walgreens. I can also mail out my leftover antibiotics.”55 Updates
      Positive reactionsExpressing a positive reaction to or result from taking antibiotics“I promise this is my last sickness tweet (bored with me yet?) But I could literally FEEL the antibiotic start to work. Amazing.”48 Updates
      AnimalsReferencing an animal, not including antibiotics in farm animals“Cat has antibiotics. Doesn't like traveling when it means there might be peroxide at the end. Is currently being bathed. Not happy. Is loud.”46 Updates
      OtherMiscellaneous mention of antibiotics that fails to fit into any other category“From the pharmacy frontier: Does the world really need 20 flavor options to make medicine go down easier? Cotton-candy antibiotic, anyone?”42 Updates
      Wanting/needingExpressing a desire for antibiotics but not having received them yet“Needs antibiotics right now!”19 Updates
      CostDiscussing cost or pricing“Turns out I can still take my antibiotic if I take an anti-histamine for the reactions: Total bill for illness? $165 thus far.”8 Updates
      MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
      The most common category was “general use,” including a range of updates about taking antibiotics, often simply mentioning the number of days remaining on a prescription and a desire that the antibiotics begin helping soon. The second most common category was “advice and information.” Some updates simply included the transfer of personal advice or information, such as “get antibiotics if its [sic] serious” or “Garlic generally good, but not specific to …”. Other updates in this category referenced news articles about antibiotics and included a link, such as this: “Antibiotic delayed aging in mice: http://tiny.cc/C17Bp. Why do mice have all the fun?”
      The third most prevalent category was “side effects/negative reactions,” which included a variety of complaints and side effects from taking the medication. Examples of side effects ranged from the general, such as, “those antibiotics made me want to die,” to the more specific, “I am on antibiotics that make me want to vomit.” Negative reactions generally revolved around inconveniences, such as not being able to drink alcohol or sensitivity to the sun.
      Figure 1, “Word Cloud,” is a visual representation of word content commonly used to represent user-generated content. This word cloud includes the 1000 status updates analyzed for this study. It depicts the 150 most frequently utilized words, with each word's frequency correlated with font size.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Fig 1Word Cloud. This word cloud depicts the 150 most frequently utilized words within the 1000 status updates analyzed for this study. Each word's frequency is correlated with font size.
      Source: http://www.wordle.net. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
      We further explored the data by mining the 52,153 status updates for terms likely to be correlated with misunderstanding or misuse and then reviewing them to confirm evidence of confusion or mishandling. The most popular word combination in this category was “flu + antibiotics,” with 345 status updates including misinformation reaching a total of 172,571 followers. The next most popular word combination was “cold + antibiotics,” with 302 status updates reaching a total of 850,375 followers. The remaining combinations, “leftover + antibiotic(s),” “extra + antibiotic(s),” and “share + antibiotic(s)” were determined to indicate misuse in 40 cases, with a total reach of 23,016 followers. See Table 4: Misuse and misunderstanding: categories, examples, frequencies, and reach of Twitter status updates.
      Table 4Misuse and misunderstanding: categories, examples, frequencies, and reach of Twitter status updates
      CategoryExampleFrequencyReach
      Cold + antibiotics“Finally over my cold. Summer colds suck. Thank-you Z-pack antibiotics.”302 UpdatesUnique users: 277 No. followers: 1 to 759,127 Median followers: 66 Total followers: 850,375
      Flu + antibiotics“Starting to feel better from the terrible flu. One antibiotic to go.”345 UpdatesUnique users: 317 No. followers: 0 to 34,721 Median followers: 78 Total followers: 172,571
      Leftover + antibiotics“Trying to find out how to get health care card for my uninsured urinary tract needing antibiotics. If you have any left over, ill pay u!”23 UpdatesUnique users: 21 No. followers: 6 to 2337 Median followers: 62 Total followers: 5860
      Share + antibiotics“Hella productive … haha! feel better homie. If I need to share my remaining antibiotics I will.”10 UpdatesUnique users: 10 No. followers: 7 to 3574 Median followers: 164 Total followers: 6216
      Extra + antibiotics“Well, looks like I have strep throat. Anyone have some extra antibiotics I could snag?”7 UpdatesUnique users: 5 No. followers: 11 to 10,750 Median followers: 71 Total followers: 10,940
      NOTE. “Unique users” refers to the number of people who posted a status update demonstrating evidence of misunderstanding or misuse. In some cases, status updates were associated with users that lacked data on number of followers. In those cases, the user was not included as a unique user, and their followers were not included in the follower count.

      Discussion

      Launched publicly in July 2006, Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to post frequent updates. An update is limited to 140 characters and can be posted through 3 methods: Web form, instant message online, or text message via mobile phone.

      Twitter. CrunchBase 2009. Available from: http://www.crunchbase.com/company/twitter. Accessed April 19, 2009.

      Twitter users follow one another's updates and can search all updates for keywords of interest. Twitter has been used to disseminate information and news, solicit feedback, communicate with companies, share ideas, document events, and provide personal updates.

      Lenhart A, Fox S. Twitter and status updating 2009. Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 12, 2009. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Twitter-and-status-updating.aspx. Accessed April 19, 2009.

      Notably, Twitter has been employed by NASA to provide updates on the status of space shuttle flights

      Chang K. Phoenix to earthlings: I've landed! Awesome! The New York Times, May 31, 2008. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/science/space/31mars.html. Accessed April 21, 2009.

      ; by a student journalist to get himself out of an Egyptian jail by “tweeting” a single word to his Twitter network—“Arrested”

      Simon M. Student “Twitters” his way out of Egyptian jail. CNN.com 2008. April 25, 2008. Available from: http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/04/25/twitter.buck/. Accessed April 20, 2009.

      —; and to disseminate information during protests after a contested election in Iran in June 2009.

      Ostrow A. Twitter reschedules maintenance around #IranElection Controversy. Mashable: the social media guide 2009. June 15, 2009. Available from: http://mashable.com/2009/06/15/twitter-iran-election/. Accessed August 15, 2009.

      Labott E. State Department to Twitter: keep Iranian tweets coming. AC360 2009, June 16, 2009. Available from: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/06/16/state-department-to-twitter-keep-iranian-tweets-coming/. Accessed August 15, 2009.

      Use of Twitter has grown rapidly, with a 1460% increase in global audience between June 2008 and June 2009. The site had an estimated 44.5 million visitors worldwide as of June 2009 (which only includes traffic to Twitter.com, not usage on desktop and mobile clients, which is also common).
      • Schonfeld E.
      Twitter reaches 44.5 million people worldwide in June (comScore).
      Twitter reached 1 billion tweets in November 2008

      Schroeder S. Twitter: One billion tweets. Wow. Mashable: the social media guide 2008. November 12, 2008. Available from: http://mashable.com/2008/11/12/twitter-one-billion-tweets-wow/. Accessed April 20, 2009.

      and served over 3.7 billion tweets as of September 4, 2009.
      With a median age of 31 years, Twitter attracts 19% of online adults ages 18 to 24 years, 20% of online adults ages 25 to 34 years, and 10% of online adults ages 35 to 44 years. Twitter users are disproportionately from lower-income households and are more ethnically and racially diverse than the full US population because of the skewed age distribution toward a younger population. Thirty-five percent of Twitter users live in urban areas, compared with 29% of all Internet users. Use of Twitter is correlated with utilization of other social media, with 23% of social network users saying they have used Twitter or a similar service, compared with just 4% of those who do not use social services.

      Lenhart A, Fox S. Twitter and status updating 2009. Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 12, 2009. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Twitter-and-status-updating.aspx. Accessed April 19, 2009.

      According to a Pew Internet & American Life survey, 12% of e-patients use Twitter or another service to share health-related updates about themselves or to see others' health-related updates.

      Fox S, Jones S. The social life of health information. Pew Internet & American Life Project 2009. June 2009. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information.aspx. Accessed April 20, 2009.

      One survey by Jupiter, a company that researches and analyzes the impact of Internet and consumer technologies, provides insight into why people look for and share information online; 36% of respondents use the Internet to see what other consumers say about a medication or treatment, 31% use the Internet to research other consumers' knowledge and experiences, 27% use the Internet to learn skills or get education that help to manage a condition, and 17% use it for emotional support.
      • Levy M.
      • Matiesanu C.
      • Mitskaviets I.
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      • Daniels D.
      Online health: assessing the risk and opportunity of social and one-to-one media 2007.
      People who feel they have a lot at stake, such as people living with a disability or chronic disease, are more likely to engage intensely with online resources.

      Fox S. The engaged e-patient population 2008. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/The-Engaged-Epatient-Population.aspx. Accessed April 20, 2009.

      This study confirmed that Twitter is a space for the informal sharing of health information and advice. The dissemination of information on Twitter through networks of followers and a culture of “retweeting” demonstrate the potential reach of this medium for the dissemination of both valid and invalid information. It is therefore important for health care professionals to have a basic understanding of such services and the nature of the health-related information that is shared on them. Given the immense popularity of such sites, they have become an integral way in which people gather and disseminate information.
      • McLean R.
      • Richards B.H.
      • Wardman J.I.
      The effect of Web 2.0 on the future of medical practice and education: Darwikinian evolution or folksonomic revolution?.
      Twitter and similar services may provide a venue to identify potential misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics, to promote positive behavior change, and to disseminate valid information. For instance, an organization can enable people taking medications to sign up to receive Twitter updates reminding them to take their medication at proper intervals to avoid missing doses or failing to complete a prescription. Research on behavior change interventions delivered by mobile telephone short-message service can be used as a model for such Twitter-based reminders, including prevention of sexually transmitted diseases,
      • Lim M.S.
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      SMS STI: a review of the uses of mobile phone text messaging in sexual health.
      smoking cessation,
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      Do u smoke after txt? Results of a randomised trial of smoking cessation using mobile text messaging.
      improving travel vaccination rates,
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      • Diez C.
      • Simó D.
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      and supporting insulin therapy.
      • Franklin V.
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      • Greene S.
      “Sweet Talk”: text messaging support for intensive insulin therapy for young people with diabetes.
      One recent paper reviewed 14 studies and reported positive behavior change outcomes in 13 of them.
      • Fjeldsoe B.S.
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      • Miller Y.D.
      Behavior change interventions delivered by mobile telephone short-message service.
      To disseminate information to those exhibiting confusion or sharing misinformation, online services are available to monitor and auto-respond to trigger word combinations, such as “flu + antibiotics.”

      Needleman R, Twitterhawk: clever Twitter marketing, or spam? CNET News 2009. February 6, 2009. Available from: http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10158914-2.html. Accessed August 11, 2009.

      Finally, such tools can potentially be used to gather important real-time health data by creating a “mashup,” which combines health status updates with location-based information.

      Mashup (Web application hybrid). Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_(web_application_hybrid). Accessed August 4, 2009.

      To track outbreaks, for example, it would be relatively easy for a health organization to enable people to submit Twitter status updates with symptoms and location data using a predefined format so that the updates are machine readable and easily mapped.
      • Cheung K.H.
      • Yip K.Y.
      • Townsend J.P.
      • Scotch M.
      HCLS 2.0/3.0: health care and life sciences data mashup using Web 2.0/3.0.
      • Hardey M.
      Public health and Web 2.0.
      A good model for such an initiative is the Twitter Vote Report project, which aggregated and mapped voter reports regarding long lines, broken machines, and problems with registration rolls in real time.

      About. Twitter vote report. Available from: http://blog.twittervotereport.com/about/. Accessed August 11, 2009.

      The project used a range of hashtag metadata to track these reports, including “#votereport” (added to all reports), “#[zip code]” to track where the individual was voting, “#machine” to report problems with a voting machine, and “wait:[minutes]” to report the length of the line.

      How to participate. Twitter vote report. Available from: http://blog.twittervotereport.com/how-to-help/. Accessed August 11, 2009.

      Such updates can be submitted proactively by participants for the sake of generating a data pool, as with the Twitter Vote Report, or passively, like the antibiotics-related data we explored for this paper. In either case, such information could be integrated with existing disease surveillance systems to supplement the information already being aggregated from different sources.
      • Keller M.
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      • Tolentino H.
      • Freifeld C.C.
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      • Eysenbach G.
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      This study has limitations that warrant discussion. First, the validity of the content and self-reported behaviors in Twitter status updates is unknown. This study used status updates as an indicator of what people think, believe, or understand; it is possible, however, that some status updates are embellished or exaggerated for effect and thus cannot be taken at face value. In addition, the extent to which findings are generalizable to other micro-blogging platforms is unknown. We may have experienced a seasonal bias; the study did not take place during the traditional influenza season, but an outbreak of H1N1 increased the frequency with which Twitter users discussed the flu and, likely, the co-occurrence of the terms “flu + antibiotics.” This effect, however, would not necessarily affect the relative level of accurate or inaccurate information being discussed. It is possible, however, that the novel nature of the H1N1 strain, in combination with amplified news coverage, may have led to an increase in misinformation. Finally, there may have been measurement biases because choosing categories was subjective, and a different group of researchers might have determined a different set, although Q-sort methodology was used to reduce this effect. Also, categorization required a series of individual judgments, and a portion of the status updates could have been reasonably placed into multiple categories, resulting in lower inter-rater reliability. The study team worked to reduce this effect by categorizing ambiguous cases by consensus.
      Despite these limitations, this study offers valuable findings. First, given that health information is shared extensively on such networks, it is important for health care professionals to have a basic familiarity with social networking media services, such as Twitter. Second, such services can potentially be used to gather important real-time health data and may provide a venue to identify potential misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics, promote positive behavior change, and disseminate valid information.
      Research focusing on microblogs and social networking services is still at an early stage. Further study is needed to assess how to promote healthy behaviors and to collect and disseminate trustworthy information using these tools.

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