Sometimes it doesn't take a computer scientist or a doctor to uncover that someone on social media is sick. 'Off to the hospital for more tests,' reads their status update, or their feed is full of heart-wrenching posts about illness.
But what if you'd rather keep your health status private, or you yourself are unaware you're suffering from a condition? Might what you post still still reveal your diagnosis?
Researchers at the Penn Social Media & Health Innovation Lab at the University of Pennsylvania are aiming to find out, Knowledge@Wharton recently reported, and they're coming up with some intriguing findings. Of course, it's often possible to guess a person's condition if they post about symptoms -- repeated updates about sadness might indicate depression, for example -- but according to the fascinating article, there are subtler ways we might inadvertently reveal our health issues online.
Do your kid pics accidentally reveal your high blood pressure?
One of the group's studies showed that "individuals who were clinically obese according to their medical records were significantly more likely to use words related to being stationary: 'sitting, being still, planted, at rest; these sorts of things,'" according the the Lab's director Raina Merchant.
That's still not hugely surprising (though the researchers actually expected the opposite -- that the overweight would post more about diet and exercise), but other correlations the team uncovered were more surprising, such as the fact that "patients with high blood pressure post more frequently about their children than do people without the condition."
You might guess that chasing around your toddler all day is sure to raise your blood pressure, but David Asch, who directs Penn's Center for Health Care Innovation, insists "dealing with your kids doesn't cause high blood pressure, although people think it does." The connection, though unexplained, might still serve as a way to offer an early warning to those at risk of the condition.
Creepy or helpful?
While it's intriguing that data mining of this type could potentially help doctors and patients diagnose certain conditions earlier, it's also kind of creepy. Just about no one wants to share highly personal information online without intending to.
But according to Merchant, the idea isn't to lurk around online secretly studying people's hidden health woes, but to develop screening services that people can actively opt into. "Our hope is, can we collect this information and give it back to patients so that they could really learn from these assumptions we're making? And how do we also make this available for health care providers, if patients wanted to share with them?" she told Knowledge@Wharton.
If they actively opt in, people will tend to see this sort of monitoring as a helpful health intervention rather than creepy, Big Brother-style monitoring, Merchant predicts. And there could be big pay offs, not just for patients, but also for the American healthcare system as a whole. "Giving someone a stent is expensive; using social media to help people exercise so they don't get cardiovascular disease is much cheaper," points out Lyle Ungar, a computer scientists working with the team.
Would you let your doctor monitor your social media feeds for hidden health information?