The very things that make social networking successful- speed and reaching large numbers of people quickly – can be detrimental when it comes to health. A new study finds that social media is spreading medical misinformation.
The study examined the use of Twitter, the micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read short messages known as tweets. Columbia University researchers studied the health information content of Twitter updates mentioning antibiotics to determine how people are sharing information and assess the proliferation of misinformation. They explored evidence of misunderstanding or misuse of antibiotics.
The conclusion was that Twitter can quickly spread inaccurate medical information and expose millions of people to bad advice. For example, one tweet - "Finally over my cold. Summer colds suck, Thank-you Z-pack antibiotics." - reached more than 850,000 people. The problem is, the tweet’s wrong – antibiotics will not cure a cold and excessive use of antibiotics can be harmful.
The data is reported in the April issue of the American Journal of Infection Control. During the study period, which took place over a four month period in 2009, hundreds of Twitter users posted erroneous information about the use of antibiotics.
“Research focusing on microblogs and social networking services is still at an early stage,” stated Daniel Scanfeld, MS, MA. “Further study is needed to assess how to promote healthy behaviors and to collect and disseminate trustworthy information using these tools.” The report stresses that because health information is shared extensively on such networks, it is important for healthcare professionals to have a basic familiarity with social networking media services, such as Twitter. They also said such services can be used to gather important real-time health data and may provide a venue to promote positive behavior change and disseminate valid information.