Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Having been glued to the microblogging site Twitter for the last 24 hours watching the 'rioting' events take place in London, I've been surprised by how people are using such a service. There are people both condemning and inflaming the situation, personal messages about what's going on and public words of warning, of places to avoid and so on.

What this has to do with teeth of course, is very minimal. But it reminded me of a recent article in the Journal of Dental Research about using social media and microblogging sites like Twitter to carry out 'public health surveillance'.  Researchers analysed 772 random and unique (but tooth related) updates from Twitter users to see how such a site could was being used to disseminate information about dental pain.  Since tweets are limited to 140 characters in length, users update more frequently in real-time, indicating that it could be a useful rolling data source.

The collected tweets were placed into various categories - statements of general pain and discomfort, or a report of action taken in response to that discomfort, for example.  Unsurprisingly for a blogging website, general statements of pain were the most frequently observed updates (83%).  Of those who tweeted about taking action (22%), most employed or desired the services of a dentist or some sort of medication.  Interestingly, 14% of the updates were seeking advice for relief of their dental pain.

Word cloud created from the tweeted information. The larger the word, the more frequently it appears. From Heaivilin et al: 2011.

Although such a method of data collection has its limitations, it is important to acknowledge that user generated content of this nature is growing in popularity. If people are sharing such information online and asking for help and advice about dental pain (and one assumes other conditions too) it might be a sign that medical professionals should consider interacting more with the medium.  Heaivilin et al acknowledge that as dental professionals, they might "need to act quickly to ensure that [they] are part of the conversation."

As an aside, it has also made me realise that ordinary, every day updates on sites like Twitter and Facebook can be easily used to harvest information like that in the article. I wonder who else is listening to these 'conversations', how they are analysing them and what other articles are being written about them, as we tweet...

N. Heaivilin, B. Gerbert, J. E. Page, J. L. Gibbs. Public Health Surveillance of Dental Pain via Twitter. Journal of Dental Research, 2011; DOI: 10.1177/0022034511415273

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