How Twitter could help combat the opioid crisis

Twitter may be a new, effective tool to help combat the nationwide opioid epidemic, research suggests.

Traditional epidemiological studies can take years to yield actionable insights, but Twitter provides a quick, reliable snapshot of who is using drugs and where those drugs are being used, researchers reveal in The Wall Street Journal.  

Analyzing tweets for drug-related content can help experts predict spikes in drug abuse and take steps to prevent overdoses, such as launching a targeted public health campaign, the Journal reported.

Using social media platforms to generate real time data for research is beginning to pick up as machine learning algorithms get "smarter." Today, these algorithms can sift through hundreds of thousands of tweets to identify areas at risk.

A study published last April found that tracking 50 opioid-related topics in various states on Twitter correlated with opioid-overdose death rates in those places.

"What you get from Twitter is a deeper understanding of geographic differences in people’s attitudes and usage patterns," Lyle Ungar, PhD, a professor of computer and information science at Pittsburgh-based University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study, told the Journal. "If we can understand the different attitudes in different communities, we may be better able to design more effective public health campaigns."

Many researchers are working to automate the monitoring process by creating software that can determine which messages on these platforms are relevant.

Read the full report here.

More articles on opioids:
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How Atrium Health prevented 23K high-risk opioid prescriptions
Judge orders full release of lawsuit against Purdue Pharma

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