How Social Media is Helping the Medical Community Spot Health Problems

By Chris Adams

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the nation’s preeminent public health organization, and it has experts whose sole purpose is to pinpoint and track the spread of disease in the country.

What if artificial intelligence – machine-learning tools – could do the same thing?

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Joe Smyser, CEO of The Public Good Projects, detailed how social media can be used to monitor health trends in the country – often doing a more precise job than the nation’s public health infrastructure. And they also find out how people and society in general are processing an issue.

For example: “If people talk about mental health, what are they talking about?” Smyser said.

The Public Good Projects monitoring of health issues pulls in a wealth of information, from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, television transcripts and other news retrieval services. From that, the surveillance can determine how people are talking about the issue – and where they are doing so.

One issue Public Good Projects has monitored is opioids, and how the messages people received in rural areas was different than ones people in urban areas received.

Among other things, the group discovered that the opioids crisis is being framed in different ways – and those ways differ based on where somebody is receiving the message. The main dimensions of the crisis are as a public policy debate, primarily in Washington, D.C.; a personal crisis at the family level; a criminal justice issue; a heath care issue involving physicians; a pharmaceutical industry problem; and a pain management issue, primarily among the people who rely on opioids.

Of all the information in the public realm on opioids, however, very little of it is tailored for rural populations, although they face a disproportionate burden of opioid-related addiction and overdose. In addition, young people are not effectively reached by awareness messaging on the issue.

Armed with that knowledge, public health officials or health systems can frame and tailor their outreach campaigns in different ways.

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