Penn Medicine sets sights on Yelp, Twitter data to drive better patient care

Seven in every 10 Americans use social media, according to a 2017 report out of the Pew Research Center. Given the ubiquitous nature of these platforms — with up to 76 percent of users citing they check a social media platform daily — can health researchers put this emerging digital data to use?

Penn Medicine, the Philadelphia-based health system of the University of Pennsylvania, thinks so. In January 2017, the system launched the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health, a research and operational initiative that aims to use digital data — in conjunction with patient records — to improve hospital operations and patient experience.

The Center for Digital Health grew out of the Penn Social Media & Health Innovation Lab — a research team founded in 2013 by Raina Merchant, MD, that focused on the intersection of social media and population health. Dr. Merchant, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the UPenn Perelman School of Medicine, will now serve as director of the Center for Digital Health, aided by Elissa V. Klinger, the center's assistant director.

"We're thinking more broadly about having patients tethered to the health system outside of routine clinical care, and having them monitored with sensors, apps, social media accounts — all different kinds of ways they may be generating data, which can be used in a positive way," says Ms. Klinger, a health services researcher with a background in public health.

UPenn is one of the latest health systems to examine the tie between social media and healthcare outcomes, which is a growing area of interest for many in academia and public health. In several instances, mining of Twitter data — specifically — has resulted in valuable findings about disease.

In past research out of UPenn, a team of 12 researchers — including Dr. Merchant — analyzed a random subset of 2,500 tweets about cardiovascular disease. The study, published in JAMA Cardiology, discerned patterns in users' communication about risk factors and disease management. An unrelated study out of San Diego State University, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, analyzed 159,802 Tweets containing the word "flu" to investigate whether Twitter can be used for seasonal influenza surveillance.

The Center for Digital Health is currently establishing its project portfolio. The center will take on some of the Social Media & Health Innovation Lab's projects, while expanding its portfolio with new initiatives of its own. The projects span studying connections between users' Twitter behavior and disease management to enabling patients to share digital health data with their providers via the patient portal of the EMR.

One of the Center for Digital Health's main projects in the coming year is a continuation of work Dr. Merchant conducted at the Social Media & Health Innovation Lab: mining Yelp reviews from patients and caregivers to gain insight into patient experience at various hospitals.

"Patients have all sorts of things to say that aren't typically captured in HCAHPS [Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems] or Press Ganey surveys," Ms. Klinger says, explaining that along with reviewing their physical care, patients on Yelp frequently comment on services like hospital amenities, parking and even the staff's cultural competency. "It's this new way of capitalizing on a free data set on the web."

"For health systems and hospitals, it's a powerful tool to be able to understand what is truly happening from the patient perspective," she continues. "We get this rich, organic data set, and it's interesting to think about how we can respond to that."

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