Tweets help health experts track opioid misuse

Monitoring use of social media platforms like Twitter can help researchers detecting misuse of opioid drugs in certain areas, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

Social media has become a place where users express themselves and discuss what is going on in their lives, making platforms like Twitter a perfect population health tool. In this study, researchers used Twitter to examine data on opioid abuse and compared data with a federal survey to outline the usefulness of social medical tools.

Led by Michael Chary, with the Department of Emergency Medicine of New York Presbyterian\Queens Hospital, researchers collected tweets using keywords related to opioid misuse. The software retrieved 3,611,528 relevant tweets from 2012 to 2014. The study then compared the Twitter data to geographical data collected from the 2013-2015 National Surveys on Drug Usage and Health (NSDUH).

Results showed the misuse of prescription opioid data found on Twitter strongly correlated with state information from the NSDUH. Correlation was strongest in individuals between 18 and 25 years old.

"We found that our estimates agreed with national survey data, suggesting that social media can be a reliable additional source of epidemiological data regarding substance use," said Chary. "Traditional methods of gauging opioid misuse in an area rely on compiling reports from local emergency rooms and poison control call centers. Through social media we can observe a much larger fraction of the population, perhaps intervening before things reach the level of needing emergency medical care."