Health Inc.

Antibiotic Info Raises 'Fail Whale' On Twitter

Twitter sometimes fails the quality test on health information. i i

Twitter's 'Fail Whale,' a sign the messaging system isn't working, could also apply to the quality of some of the health information there. Twitter hide caption

itoggle caption Twitter
Twitter sometimes fails the quality test on health information.

Twitter's 'Fail Whale,' a sign the messaging system isn't working, could also apply to the quality of some of the health information there.

Twitter

OK, I admit it. I'm a Luddite. I don't tweet.

But I do read other people's tweets. Now I find out I need to be a little more careful about that.

Take, for instance, lots of misinformation out there about antibiotics, according to research in the April issue of the American Journal of Infection Control. (The journal gave us permission to link to the paper here.)

Twitter, it seems, is part of the problem.

Researchers from Columbia University and web-based software company MixedInk analyzed more than 52,000 tweets between March and July 2009 that contained the word "antibiotics."

They checked for words like "flu," "cold," "leftover," and "share." There were 345 mentions of antibiotics for use with flu — a no-no because antibiotics don't fight the viruses that cause flu. Total reach: more than 170,000 followers.

There were 302 tweets recommending antibiotics as cold treatments (another wasted effort) that potentially reached more than 850,000 followers. Bum steers about sharing antibiotics or using old medicines weren't quite so common.

The researchers' prescription is for health care professionals to keep tabs on what kinds of information their patients are getting from tweets, so they can disabuse them of any false notions. And epidemiologists may want to pay attention as well, since tweets may be the first sign that a new infection is going around.

As for me, I'm going to stick with tweeters I trust:

Shots editor Scott Hensley for one: @scotthensley.

Fellow NPR health policy correspondent: Julie Rovner @jrovner.

Helen Branswell at Canada Post for infectious disease: @CP_Branswell.

Anna Wilde Mathews of the Wall Street Journal for consumer health: @annawmatthews.

And I can't live without my hands-down favorite for hints on everyday living: @FDArecalls.

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