Taking the pulse of social media to drive healthcare policy


A new study from UK think tank Demos in conjunction with health charity The King’s Fund looks at how the internet and in particular social media can be used to shape health policy.

It reveals that 43 percent of internet users have now used the web to access health information, up from just 18 percent in 2007. Alongside well-administrated official sources, unregulated online forums have grown to be valuable spaces for users to discuss conditions and treatments, ask questions, and share advice with those who have had similar experiences.

The study shows that these forums represent a rich source of qualitative data, ranging from discussions of medication side effects to detailed patient opinions on hospitals and treatments. These remain largely untapped by healthcare professionals, however, due to the difficulty of analysing such vast quantities of unstructured data.

The paper also examines in detail how such data can be accessed and used in a way that could improve understanding of conditions and support, but remains ethical and respects user privacy. Researchers carried out a pilot study, reading posts on publicly available forums using a modified web scraper and anonymizing the data. Researchers then trained bespoke ‘Natural Language Processing’ algorithms to answer specific questions about how users discuss mental health online.

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The piloted software had a high accuracy rate (72 percent) in identifying posts describing experiences of patients who have a personal experience of CBT, a form of therapy. The process was able to identify a wide range of narratives involving the effectiveness, perception of and demand for this treatment.

“This pilot project demonstrates that public online health forums could prove to be a valuable resource for policymakers and practitioners who want to better understand the experiences of often hard to reach communities,” says Josh Smith, researcher in the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. “It highlights the potential for new technology and methodologies to provide a whole new perspective on mental health, while laying the foundations for this work to be conducted in an ethical and effective manner.”

The full paper detailing the results of the research is available on the Demos website.

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