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Social media used to track harmful side effects of narcotics medication

Social media is often blamed for depression, unhappiness, and for creating an illusion of lifestyles that aren’t “real.” However, researchers are finding that various social media platforms provide a wealth of useful data that even the people using them might not recognize. Most recently, medical researchers led by Cedars-Sinai Center for Outcomes Research and Education (CORE) in Los Angeles tracked social media data to study harmful side effects of narcotics medication that patients often take for pain.

During the study, according to News Medical, the research team tracked more than 2 billion tweets and posts on social media platforms such as Twitter, AskaPatient.com, and PatientsLikeMe.com to uncover data that isn’t usually available through traditional clinical research. Researchers examined keywords such as “pain meds,”  “bloating,” “diarrhea,” “hydrocodone,” and “oxycodone,” in 2.5 million tweets and 217,000 posts. They also reviewed 1.8 billion posts from a data service, Treato, which indexes content from health-related websites.

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There were limitations to the study, such as the inability to determine if more than one person posted the same information on multiple social media platforms, and without the availability of demographics, the data retrieved couldn’t be linked to any specific group.

Still, the data revealed an important concern that doctors aren’t warning patients who are prescribed narcotics for pain, of potential side effects. According to Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research and CORE, “These types of insights provide a blueprint for how to do better. By informing doctors and prescribers about these results, we can hopefully improve the communication and shared decision-making between doctor and patient around pain medications.”

While researchers believe the study is the first to analyze social media data to track gastrointestinal side effects of narcotics, it isn’t the first time tweets and online posts have been examined for medical research. Most recently, social media data and hashtags were analyzed to follow underage drinking, patient care and comfort during MRI scans, and preventing the spread of foodborne illnesses.