Does Social Media Send Signals Of Medical Distress?

The language people use on social networking site Facebook subtly changes before they make a visit to the hospital, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Stony Brook University in the US.

They compared patients’ Facebook posts to their medical records. They showed that a shift to more formal language and descriptions of physical pain, among other changes, reliably preceded hospital visits.

The study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, provides more evidence that social media is often an unseen signal of medical distress and could potentially be used to trigger health care interventions.

Posts from as early as two-and-a-half months before the date of the patients’ ED visit were analysed using a machine learning model that processed their language to find changes over time.

  • Context in which people are seeking care should be understood.
  • While this research is in a very early stage, it could potentially be used to both identify at-risk patients for immediate follow-up or facilitate more proactive messaging for patients reporting doubts about what to do before a specific procedure.
  • Most patients underwent a significant change in language before they went to the ED.
  • Before their visit, patients were less likely to post about leisure or use internet slang, and informal language.
  • As patients got closer to their eventual ED visit, the researchers found that Facebook posts increasingly discussed family and health more.
  • They also used more anxious, worrisome, and depressed language.
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