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Medical companies mining social media to track illnesses

A picture taken on October 23, 2012 shows the screen of a blackberry phone featuring a page with the adress of the micro-blogging site Twitter website.
A picture taken on October 23, 2012 shows the screen of a blackberry phone featuring a page with the adress of the micro-blogging site Twitter website.

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Online viral videos and posts aren't anything new, but what if the thing going viral is an actual biological virus? One that health professionals can track in real time?

Medical companies are researching ways to mine the tweets and Facebook posts you make about your health and use them as data points to track outbreaks, analyze drug side-effects, and more.

April Dembosky reporting on this development for the Financial Times, says that most companies — medical companies included — already use social media as a customer satisfactory vehicle. While many companies are looking for negative reactions to a product, pharmaceutical companies will look at social media to find negative side effects of certain drugs so they may tailor or change the makeup of that drug.

The information offered by people on social media outlets is voluntary and therefore the claim that companies are intruding on private information is actually incorrect.

“What research has also found, though, is that people are in some cases more willing to share on social media information about their health than they are with their own doctors,” said Dembosky. Additionally, she says that other research proves, people are willing to be more honest and open when supplying personal data if there is some type of reward or retribution offered after complying.

Many companies, like Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health system that has 9 million members across the country, will look at social media to see if people are happy with certain services provided. Some hospitals can monitor channels in real time in order to find immediate results to possible problems, like ER wait times.

Essentially Dembosky thinks that the more health care providers can understand their members needs, background, and socioeconomic demographics, the more the companies will be able to better implement preventative healthcare.

Public Health officials have also been involved in monitoring social media channels. Even more so, many scientists and doctors are interested in using digital media as an indicator for health changes and outbreaks of communities.

“[The Google Flu Tracker], became an early indicator that something was going on in a particular community,” said Dembosky. “People are now very interested in how social media sites could serve a similar purpose, as people just start complaining about not feeling well to their friends.”

Dembosky is certain that while many hardships lay ahead for the healthcare industry to flush out before success, the potential is there. She claims that the industry has historically been behind other industries in terms of retail and advertising and banking.

“It’s still several years out in terms of how much they’ve successfully harnessed this information. Of course, the privacy concerns are enormous, and so especially, you know, hospitals want to tread very carefully here,” said Dembrosky. “So it could be some time before we see the kind of application in healthcare that we’ve seen in other industries. That being said, the other industries do indicate, you know, some of the future of where this could be headed.”