How Healthcare Researchers Use Twitter to Track the Flu

Social media has been working its way into the healthcare industry over the last few years and now the latest use is through the use of Twitter as a flu-tracking tool. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are now employing the social media platform to monitor flu activity across the U.S. reported on how researchers are using social media to track this health epidemic.

While tweets are simply not capable of providing exact numbers of influenza cases, they are certainly useful for tracking flu outbreak trends among the overall population.

Yet this isn’t the first time that social media has been used to monitor health conditions. In a prior project, Twitter was utilized to track trends in seasonal allergies across different geographic regions. That project could open the doors to mapping allergy prevalence in individual states or even specific communities. Tweets may also eventually be used to observe how people choose and take medications.

Interestingly, this flu-tracking project required much more than just keeping an eye on Twitter. The project began with a word search query of hundreds of keywords related to health and flu. This allowed researchers to look for tweets from people fighting the flu.  Then, the researchers used supervised machine learning to teach the computer to search for these tweets. They trained the computer to search for phrases that people suffering from influenza were likely to tweet, like “sick with the flu,” and put the computer to work sorting through millions of tweets for these related phrases.

While it wasn’t possible to ascertain precise statistics from the tweets, these comments were able to provide an estimate of the number of people fighting the flu on a certain day to give a better idea of outbreak trends.

The findings may not have been as precise as traditional public health information sources, but Twitter’s lesser accuracy was clearly offset by its much greater speed and convenience. Clearly, both sources have their benefits and they can be used together to help healthcare professionals get a better handle on the flu.

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