Twitter may shed light on patients' response to medical errors

Amid growing concerns about medical errors, the nation's third-leading cause of death, Twitter could serve as a tool to collect data and improve patient engagement on the subject, according to a study published in the Journal of Patient Safety.

Researchers, led by Atul Nakhasi, M.D., collected more than 1,000 public tweets in English containing key phrases such as "doctor screwed up." Eighty-three percent of the tweets, posted between January and August 2012, specified the type of medical error. Altogether, the researchers identified that 23 percent of the tweets concerned medication errors, 23 percent involved diagnostic mistakes and 14 percent involved surgical errors. Ninety percent were posted by patients and 9 percent were posted by family members.

A little more than half of the tweets involved an emotional response to the error, according to the researchers; a plurality of those tweets (52 percent) expressed frustration, 21 percent expressed humor or at least sarcasm and 14 percent expressed sadness. About 6 percent of all tweets also indicated the poster intended to sue for malpractice.

"Twitter is a relevant data source to obtain the patient perspective on medical errors," researchers concluded. "Twitter may provide an opportunity for health systems and providers to identify and communicate with patients who have experienced a medical error."

The study echoes research published in October that found social media posts could be a valuable tool for measuring patients' perceptions of care quality, FierceHealthcare previously reported. "We see this as just the first of many studies to come examining the relationship between health and social media," said study coauthor Lyle Ungar, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania. Further analysis reveals people's Twitter activity relating to their symptoms accurately predicts their emergency room use.

To learn more:
- read the study abstract