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Can twitter be used for public health surveillance?

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If people were to be asked how often they visit a social networking site, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, My Space or any other, chances are it would be that a large number of those asked log on at least once a day (especially teenagers and young adults).

As such, it may come as no surprise to learn that research has been done to discover the role social networking can have on improving and observing the general public health of the nation. A study has recently been published in the Journal of Dental Research, called Public Health Surveillance of Dental Pain Via Twitter.

As Twitter is regularly used to update followers of the day to day dealings of the user, complaints of dental pains, whether they’re toothaches, complications or other forms of dental problems, are often tweeted about. Twitter was used more than any other social networking site because of the specific niches that can be fractioned off within the site, as people tweet to one another and purposely target professionals over specific topics, such as health.

The research was conducted out of the University of California San Francisco, where Barbara Gerbert, Natalie Heaivilin, Jens Page and Jennifer Gibbs authored the study.

They investigated their claim of the usefulness of social networking by selecting 1,000 tweets at random containing the key words “dental pain”. Their results found that 80% of tweets were regarding general statements of dental pain, while the rest referred to specific actions they had taken to rid themselves of dental pain, whether it was visiting the dentist or taking some form of painkiller.

After reading the paper, the editor in-chief of the Journal of Dental Research, William Giannobile has stated his belief that the use of social media to aid public health is exceptionally effective.

An article called Using Social Media for Research and Public Health Surveillance has been published by one Paul Eke from the Centres of Disease Control, which stated that the use of social media can be used effectively for the good of public health. However, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed before this route can be used to fully aid the public’s health.

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