Study Finds Twitter Is Used to Spread Misinformation about Antibiotics and Other Medical Topics

Study results published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that Twitter is often used to spread misleading or false information about key healthcare topics, with incorrect information from a single tweet able to reach hundreds of thousands of patients.

An article in the New York Daily News reports that “a new study that examined the reach of medical misinformation in Twitter posts, found that a single tweet can spread incorrect information to more than a million people.”

Results from the study were published in the American Journal of Infection Control in an article titled “Dissemination of Health Information through Social Networks — Twitter and Antibiotics.” For the study, the authors randomly selected 1,000 Twitter status updates mentioning antibiotics and mined them for co-occurrence of the following terms: “cold + antibiotic(s),” “extra + antibiotic(s),” “flu + antibiotic(s),” “leftover + antibiotic(s),” and “share + antibiotic(s).” This was done to “explore cases of potential misunderstanding or misuse.” Posts were reviewed to “confirm evidence of misuse or misunderstanding.”

The authors reported that “cases of misunderstanding or abuse were identified for the following combinations: “flu + antibiotic(s)” (n = 345), “cold + antibiotic(s)” (n = 302), “leftover + antibiotic(s)” (n = 23), “share + antibiotic(s)” (n = 10), and “extra + antibiotic(s)” (n = 7).”Based on their findings, the authors concluded that “Social media sites offer means of health information sharing. Further study is warranted to explore how such networks may provide a venue to identify misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics, promote positive behavior change, disseminate valid information, and explore how such tools can be used to gather real-time health data.”

A segment on Good Morning America reviewed the study results and spoke with Daniel Scanfield, MS, MA, a co-author of the study. The Good Morning America report noted that hundreds of users -- “around 2 percent of the studied tweets” -- posted “casual misinformation about antibiotics,” which, in turn, “reached more than a million of their followers.”

Scanfield said that “When we looked at tweets ... we found that there are some basic categories like general mentioning of antibiotics or complaints about side effects and things like that, but there was also a category that was pretty interesting, where people were indicating misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics… And we found that to be really interesting, because one tweet indicating misuse of antibiotics could be spread potentially to hundreds of thousands of people via the Twitter network.”

The Good Morning America report also noted that “one tweet about antibiotics for a cold -- which is not their intended use -- reached around 850,000 people. In other cases, the study found people often tweeted about not finishing their antibiotics or offering to share them with others.”

What should physicians do about twits who look to Twitter for medical advice?

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has been in the news due to its unfortunate ability to rapidly disseminate less-than-reliable information about an important health topic. CNN ran this story last spring, when swine flu hype and hysteria was still rampant. The article said that “some observers” were denouncing Twitter as “a hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak” of swine flu in Mexico, citing misleading and outright false claims and advice on Twitter about the transmission of swine flu (for example, the article said that some Twitter users were telling their followers to stop eating pork).

As with all online medical information, the prime directive to patients should always be “Know thy source of information.” Be prepared to direct them to reliable and authoritative sources of online information (MDNG is the doctor’s best friend when it comes to this. Each issue features links to the best patient education resources in a variety of categories and topics.) Remind them that while many .com websites provide useful information, their best bet will be sites with URLs that end in “.gov,” “.edu,” or “.org.” Remind them also to be careful whom they follow — not everybody who claims to be so is actually a physician or healthcare expert

Physicians who want to know what people are saying on Twitter should periodically visit the Twitter website and use keywords to search for tweets on the latest healthcare topic du jour. For example, a quick search on Twitter for “medical misinformation” reveals that dozens of people have tweeted a link to the New York Daily News and Good Morning America reports about medical misinformation and Twitter.

In “A Twitter Primer for Physicians,” Dr. Wes (check out his blog here) says that he is “amazed at how many cardiologists I encounter who know little to nothing about blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz and the like.” He says that Twitter is an excellent tool that allows physicians to gain visibility for their blogs and websites, notify readers when new content has been posted, and, perhaps most importantly, to monitor in real-time what physicians and patients are saying about important healthcare topics.

It’s not all bad news for Twitter Some studies have actually found Twitter to be an useful tool in raising awareness of key healthcare topics. The study “Pandemics in the Age of Twitter: Content Analysis of “Tweets” During the H1N1 Outbreak” found that “Contrary to anecdotal evidence, misinformation is not rampantly spread via Twitter. Instead, the service is being utilized to distribute news and information from credible sources and almost one of five tweets are of humorous nature. Contrary to some media reports of Twitter fueling an epidemic of misinformation, Twitter can and is already used to quickly disseminate pandemic information to the public.” More on this can be found here.