The next time you tweet about your flu, think about how those 140 characters could lead to improvements in healthcare.
The data we provide through our public social media accounts and tech like smart phones mean that a lot of information about health trends is available in a way it’s never been before.
As technology merges with our everyday lives, we are recording a lot of information about our health. We have watches that record our sleep and phones that record our steps. We have apps that guide yoga practices, or our hormonal cycles.
Lots of us are open about our health on social media. We tell people about our most recent bout of gastro or flu, no matter how many people reply with “TMI!” Although reading these updates can put you off your dinner, they reflect an openness that could be providing important data to the world.
This tech doesn’t only enhance our mindfulness of our own health – it makes it more possible for healthcare professionals to see patterns in our symptoms.
How data helps
Infectious disease specialists have been using this data to predict disease outbreaks, including cholera, influenza and foodborne illness.
A good example is the software Healthmap, created in 2006 by a team of researchers, software developers and epidemiologists. It was initially intended for an audience of public health specialists but during the swine flu epidemic, the public became interested in its possibilities.
If you go to the Healthmap website, you can click on a coloured dot and find out if there are any health threats near you. For example, I can click on Victoria and see that there’s a Blue green algae warning in Lake Bullen Merri in Camperdown, so I know I shouldn’t fish or swim in that area at the moment.
This software mined data that predicted Ebola nine days before the World Health Organisation, by scouring tens of thousands of social media sites, local news and physicians social networks and filtering the data. Software like this can identify diseases and map their location.
We asked Business Analytics program director Dr Kok-Leong Ong about the ways big data can impact healthcare. He had this to say:
“With big data analytics in healthcare, patients can expect high quality of care from interventions that are timely and targeted.”
In the future, as this increases, we may be able to avoid pandemics before they start.
Image: Phone by Foundry (CC0 1.0)