Social Media: The Future of Public Health Research

Social media is an integral part of society today, as almost everybody uses it to share their life experiences, opinions, and ideas. Despite the joy of seeing posts and pictures from an old friend you haven’t seen in years, the power of social media extends far past personal relationships. It’s been an effective way for companies to advertise, governments to observe, and entrepreneurs to promote themselves. Though, there are also potential employments of this social web for public health professionals to track the occurrence and distribution of health factors to study and potentially control them.


Practical Use in Public Health Research

The applications for social media as a tool for public health research are endless. Whether it be the surveillance of current social media platforms such a Facebook and Twitter or the creation of a new platform to take public submissions, the ability to collect data is real. 

For example, an article published in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics explains the use of a platform known as PREDOSE (PREscription Drug abuse Online Surveillance and Epidemiology) to track the incidence of drug abuse in a population.

The ability to observe incidents of drug abuse gives epidemiologists the power to find patterns and draw conclusions regarding potential causative factors. In fact, the authors of the review paper predict PREDOSE to play an important role in the future of drug abuse epidemiology.

Saving Money and Lives

Social media provides a new way for epidemiologists to survey the public. Now, instead of taking the time to fill out surveys created by health professionals, the data needed can be accessed by information individuals post online.

According to Handicap International – France, an epidemiological survey can be tedious, requiring willing participants, adequate funding, and  extensive information on the population. Bringing the survey to the public requires lesswork for the participants and could potentially cost far less while reaching a greater number of people.

Identifying Risk Factors

According to the World Health Organization a risk factor is any characteristic or exposure of an individual that raises the likelihood of developing a disease and injury. With adequate and ethical surveillance of a population, these risk factors can be identified and a study can be drawnup to analyze and control them.

In today’s society almost everybody posts various aspects of their lives online to share with friends, family, or the general public. Therefore, social media, as explained earlier with the PREDOSE platform, can be a powerful tool in identifying risk factors in particular groups of people that post about them online.

The Future of Social Media’s Role in Public Health

In May of 2015 a Digital Disease Detection (DDD) conference was held in Florence, Italy to bring together leaders in health and technology to help further define the field and continue to make advancements in analyzing health factors through the public’s use of the internet.

Visualization of a social network through keywords used by Twitter users. Via Marc Smith

Exciting times in epidemiological research are emerging with the integration of new technology in society. While individuals posting about a recent injury or disease they have may onlybe trying to share their experiences with the world, it could prove to play a pivotal role in identifying and preventing the same health factor in the future.

If you have any comments or questions on the present or future use of social media’s role in epidemiology, please leave a comment in the section below!



  1. Hi Matt–if an epidemiologist used social media to collect data on a population, would he or she need to also determine what types of people within the population tend to use social media more? I was curious because I thought such a study might be biased toward studying people from younger generations, who might use social media more than older individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your question, and the answer is absolutely age needs to be taken into consideration. Younger generations use social media more extensively than older generations, and that could affect a study. A number of variables including age need to be taken into account when using social media for public health research.


  2. Hello:
    Is it important to know the demographics of the population that is being studied? Using social media seems like it would be a great time saver and cost saver, but not all people use social media. Maybe social media would be used for very specific cases in which demographics are not important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Karin,
      Demographics are critical when conducting epidemiological studies because they allow for the identification of risk factors within a certain population. That being said, information from social media users could be used to organize people in groups based on a number of variables which would allow for a study to be done more accurately with more defined population.

      Liked by 1 person

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