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Twitter helps scientists understand medicine side effects


A study of more than 20k Tweets has helped University of Manchester scientists understand the side-effects of a commonly used steroid drug.

The team, led by Prof Will Dixon, searched for people discussing the side-effects of prednisolone and they found the 2 most tweeted symptoms were insomnia and weight gain.

A computer system automatically identified Tweets containing the drug name as well as any mentions of what looked like a side-effect. Terms like “can’t sleep” were then translated into insomnia.

Up until now, research has historically focused on more serious problems, such as osteoporosis and fractures, while little attention has been paid to what was perceived as less serious issues. However, this study shows that it’s actually these that worry users much more.

“Though Insomnia and weight gain were the two most commonly discussed side-effects, they are not usually highlighted by clinicians when prescribing prednisolone,” explained team member, Dr Rikesh Patel.

“Part of this is down to a lack of research investigating patient experience with their medications.

“We believe social media such as Twitter can be used to broaden knowledge about drugs and potential side-effects that patients themselves find troublesome.”

Professor Dixon added: 

“Our view is that social media sources such as Twitter can be useful because they can illustrate which drug side-effects patients discuss most commonly, even if they are not necessarily the most serious.

“Less serious side-effects are often missed in other research because patients may not mention their symptoms to their doctors, or they are not recorded in medical records. Yet this is despite them being troublesome.”

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