How tweeting can stop the spread of flu

I read a really fascinating article the other day, about how activity on Twitter, Google and social media sites can now be used to discover information about hospitals, or flu epidemics very quickly, and help to save lives.

It’s amazing that lots of tweets about the smell of ‘urine’ might be able to alert people to failing hospitals way before anyone dies from malpractice. In the same way tweets that talk about staff like ‘angels’ will be able to point people to good hospitals.

Felix Greaves is a young doctor who has developed a computer programme which searches social media posts to spot good and bad hospitals, just by recognising common key words. Unfortunately, when ‘cup of tea’ is mentioned, the computer can’t tell whether the situation is good or bad as the words are used in both positive and negative ways! His study of “sentiment analysis”, was published in the February issue of the online journal BMJ Quality and Safety, and is an example of the way that social media is becoming more important in medicine.

Another way this programme can be used, is to recognise when flu outbreaks are occurring as they unfold. People who feel unwell often type ‘flu remedy’ into a search engine, so epidemics can be discovered sooner than if doctors had to report them. This way public health crises can be predicted and hopefully avoided. 

Max Pemberton (‘Trust me, I’m a junior doctor’) wrote in his blog a couple of days ago that perhaps the government should recruit celebrities to tweet health tips after 1D’s Harry Styles has been educating his thousands of Twitter followers about Greek philosophy. But I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea!