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November 01, 2013 // By Jessica Mikulski // Comments

Penn Medicine Researchers Turn to Twitter for Helpful Revelations on an Emerging Addiction Crisis

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Twitter_RXOver the past several years, sales of prescription opioid pain medications have more than tripled in the United States. At the same time, researchers have noticed a parallel rise in opioid addiction, overdose, emergency department (ED) visits, and death from these drugs.

Despite these rising figures, addiction to prescription opioids is still widely misunderstood by the medical community and many of the factors that play into a person’s path to abusing these drugs, due in part to the illegal and taboo nature of the problem, are kept secret.

Doctors and other addiction specialists are desperate to find clues into how the line between appropriate use and addiction becomes blurred and now they are turning to social media messages to better understand the roots of this dangerous epidemic.

“As an emergency medicine physician, I am greatly concerned about misuse and abuse of prescription opioids,” said Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn and senior author of a new study presented last week at the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) Scientific Assembly that used social media to gain information into this mounting prescription drug epidemic.

“I see firsthand the devastating effects that abuse and overdose of these drugs have on patients and their families.  But I’m also at a loss as to how many of my patients hit bottom. We wanted to see if a social networking platform such as Twitter would give us some new insights into how people are using these medications and whether their own tweets would reveal tools to help us fight this growing problem.”

Perrone, who is also the Director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Penn, and her research team set out to assess prescription opioid tweets in order to characterize their content according to whether people were using the medications as directed or abusing them and if people were describing their use in positive or negative terms. They also sought to identify common themes in the tweets.

After analyzing over 2,100 tweets sent during a one week time span for specific key words, they found that many of these messages were about prescription opioids abuse.  They also discovered that abuse of these medications was described favorably in the majority of tweets.  In terms of common themes, many of the tweets described trips to the ED and dental offices as the source of obtaining the medications.

“For example, one tweet we reviewed said ‘My wisdom teeth surgery was not that bad, and now I have a jar of vicodin #partyatmyhouse.’  This is obviously a concerning message and signals to us that patients need better education about the serious effects and potential for abuse that these medications have. From this review, we believe that Twitter can be used as a valuable resource as we seek to better identify trends and improve our understanding of prescription pain medication use and abuse,” Perrone says.

In ongoing research, Perrone and colleagues are analyzing additional keywords and a larger number of tweets to continue to track usable trends. They are also interested in developing and implementing an automated, natural language search tool that will help with future surveillance efforts.

For more information, read Dr. Perrone’s interview with Medscape about her presentation at the ACEP meeting.  

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