Social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest have become key communication platforms that support different types of content such as video, text, and photos.

Interactions on these sites attract millions of daily visitors, translating to terabytes of data that end up in extremely large data farms. This wealth of data provides health experts with valuable information that can be analyzed to improve human health by detecting patterns.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Boston University’s Master of Science in Health Communication program.

How Health Communicators Use Social Media and Big Data

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How Health Researchers Collect and Analyze Big Data

To succeed in their role of keeping the public healthy, researchers and health care administrators must have the capability to detect and predict disease outbreaks before they become widespread. Traditionally, these experts relied on data sets collected from health facilities and research laboratories throughout the United States. This process is slow, laborious, time-consuming, and very expensive. Fortunately, health experts can now use social networking sites to monitor disease outbreaks, track health perceptions among web users, and measure key health indicators. To do this, health experts must first collect raw data and subject it to data cleaning, transformation, storage, and ultimately analysis to extract useful insights.

Here is how it works:

1. First, raw data relevant to a specific health issue is collected from diverse sources. A good example is harnessing data about prescription drug usage in the form of social media posts.
2. The raw data is prepared for analysis via categorization according to specific health terms, symptom keywords, or drug brands.
3. Then, statisticians or data analysts subject the structured data to comprehensive analysis.
4. Statisticians and researchers examine the data for unique patterns and other insights through analytics.
5. Finally, the useful insights and results are disseminated to the public or relevant organizations, typically with help from professional health communicators.

It is also worth noting that analysts and health communicators must comply with the relevant data privacy regulations and best practices when collecting and analyzing information that is sourced from web users.

Online Health Data Collection and Analysis Case Studies

NowTrending.HHS.gov resulted from a contest challenge launched in 2012 by the Office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Today, NowTrending.HHS.gov, is a web-based application tracking open source Twitter data on health topics.

  • The project has been used as a portal for collecting and building a baseline of diverse health data sets. It tracks disease trends by Tweet Count, Tweet Location, and User Location.
  • The site also functions as a communication platform, engaging the public on various public health threats and issues.
  • NowTrending.HHS.gov continues to be a go-to site for public health officials and organizations engaged in monitoring emerging health trends in the general population.
  • The site is a useful cross-reference point for other data sources.

Google Health Trends was launched in 2008 by the search giant in an effort to monitor and predict health trends.

  • Its first initiatives focused on using search query data to predict flu and dengue fever outbreaks.
  • After thorough analysis, Google’s data sets collected in 2008, 2013, and 2014 showed an increase in disease outbreaks.

FoodBorne Chicago is a website and app developed by a group of public health-minded partners, inside and outside of the Chicago Department of Public Health. The collaborators included a graduate and faculty member of Boston University’s online Master of Science in Health Communication program.

  • FoodBorne Chicago connects people who Tweet complaints about food poisoning to city officials who can help.
  • The app sifts through tweets, by location, that mention food poisoning and encourage users to report food-related health incidents.
  • Since its launch in 2013, the FoodBorne Chicago app has compiled more than 2,000 reports from residents.

Healthmap is a web-based app launched in 2006 by epidemiologists, software developers, and health researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital with the aim of monitoring and tracking health threats in real-time. This program also utilizes a mobile app called Outbreaks Near Me to collect and aggregate data by location and disease.

Internet of Things (IoT) and Its Role in Public Health

Besides social media, the fast-growing Internet of Things (IoT) has emerged as a major resource in monitoring health issues.

In 2016, approximately 5.5 million internet-connected devices were activated daily, somewhere in the world. By the close of 2016, more than 6.4 billion web-connected devices were predicted to be in use—outpacing 2015 by 30 percent. Experts predict this trend to continue. They estimate 20.8 billion connected devices will be in use by the end of 2020.

Health practitioners and facilities in the United States are leveraging the power of IoT to monitor patients and track progress pre- and post-treatment.

Currently, 26 percent of health care providers have started using web-connected devices to monitor patient health parameters of interest.

These self-monitoring devices include:

  • 73 percent of health care facilities using glucometers to observe the blood glucose levels of patients;
  • 63 percent of health care providers using heart rate monitors to keep track of patients’ cardiovascular health;
  • 61 percent using blood pressure cuffs;
  • 46 percent monitoring through use of weight scales;
  • An estimated 9 percent of health care providers use other types of web-connected devices to remotely track patient health measures.

Although data security and personal privacy concerns have been raised, they have not dented public confidence or stopped Americans from sharing personal data with doctors and medical researchers. In fact, 8 out of 10 of patients said they would be willing to share data with their doctors to enhance their health care experience, while 59 percent say they would contribute personal data to medical research.

How IoT has Revolutionized Health Care

Nearly 8 in 10 health care providers believe remote monitoring of patients is helpful with compliance and treatment – provided patients follow guidelines and treatment plans set forth by health care practitioners.

In the next year:

  • Approximately six out of 10 providers plan to recommend wearable devices to patients;
  • Nearly 86 percent of health practitioners plan to use remote monitoring devices to help patients manage chronic diseases;
  • 65 percent of health professionals agree that wearables will continue to have a positive influence on human health;
  • 56 percent of health professionals recommend wearables for preventive health;
  • 44 percent of doctors prescribe wearables for post-op and post-discharge care purposes.

Digital and Social Media Communication Best Practices

Social networking sites are vital channels for communicating with the millions of Americans who use them, daily. Mobile-friendly platforms, and platform-agnostic content development strategies supporting video, text and photo-based content are effective ways to maximize audience reach and engagement.

Other best practices for creating successful, engaging social media health campaigns:

  • Maintain accuracy and consistency in messaging
  • Encourage public participation (ask questions, invite feedback)
  • Monitor and measure web audience participation
  • Post multilingual content
  • Create content that is relevant for audience age, culture, other targeted populations
  • Measure the success of information dissemination
  • Gauge public opinion on health trends
  • Upload easily shareable content
  • Always keep privacy and ethical practices top of mind

Conclusion

Social networking sites are highly effective tools for collecting data and disseminating information on key health issues. Physicians can also use internet-connected devices to track and monitor health parameters like blood glucose levels, temperature, and blood pressure. To reach the right audience, health communicators must create and publish messages that contain accurate content, are mobile friendly, multilingual, engaging, relevant for culture, age and population, and are sharable.