New study looks at Twitter's portrayal of prescription drugs

The study analyzed over 2,100 tweets over a one-week period

· November 21, 2013, 4:30 pm   ·  Updated November 21, 2013, 11:08 pm

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It only takes 140 characters to provide people with false information about prescription drugs.

Jeanmarie Perrone, professor of emergency medicine at Penn, along with her colleagues, presented a study that looked at what information was being said on Twitter about various prescription drugs and how the drugs were being portrayed.

“Social media gives us the opportunity to understand, in an unedited way, about what peoples’ thoughts about medications are and more broadly their thoughts about healthcare,” said Raina Merchant, director of the Penn Medicine Social Media Innovation Lab. Merchant has conducted a similar study in the past looking at Twitter use and cardiac arrest.

The study analyzed over 2,100 tweets over a one-week period and found that most people were talking about abusing the medication rather than using it therapeutically. The researchers looked at six key words about the medication, such as “hydros” or “percs,” to identify the range of abuse.

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“One of the things that is interesting is how information is propagated abut drug abuse, how do people know what the drugs do, how they make them feel,” said Lewis Nelson, professor of emergency medicine at New York University Medical School and one of the co-authors of the study.

About 60 to 70 percent of the tweets they reviewed described drug use favorably. “There was a fair amount of discussion about misuse or abuse than therapeutic use,” Perrone said.

One tweet read, “Never thought about the dont mix alcohol and vicodin thing until they were already in my system doing there thing. Panic mode.”

The researchers also found that visits to the dentist or the emergency department for pain were mentioned specifically in connection to types of prescription drugs.

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For example, hydrocone was specifically connected to prescriptions from dentist visits, while being in the emergency department for pain was connected with percocet, said Perrone.

Perrone argues that there has been an increase in prescription drug addiction because of the recent trend in prescribing more of these addictive painkillers to people.

“Now we think that if you get your wisdom teeth pulled you should get 30 hydrocodone. There is a big push in medicine to be intolerable of any type of pain and eradicate it in order to be more humane,” said Perrone.

The goal from this research is to work toward changing the culture surrounding prescription drugs and utilize Twitter as a medium for the communication of proper information about drug usage.

“It’s important for people to understand the limitations of what they learn from social media, unfiltered and not evidence based, to learn most things about health care,” said Nelson.

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Perrone noted that the next step in this research would be to write guidelines and tweet them or refer people to the published guidelines by using social media strategy. It would enable both clinicians and patients to reach out so that their “expectations can be adjusted.”

“We need to translate the information to the patients we take care of so we’re not propagating the false pretense that these drugs are safe and effective,” said Perrone.

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