Social Media and Internet-Based Data in Global Systems for Public Health Surveillance: A Systematic Review

March 2014 | Edward Velasco, Tumacha Agheneza, Kerstin Denecke, Tim Eckmanns | Review Article

Context: The exchange of health information on the Internet has been heralded as an opportunity to improve public health surveillance. In a field that has traditionally relied on an established system of mandatory and voluntary reporting of known infectious diseases by doctors and laboratories to governmental agencies, innovations in social media and so-called user-generated information could lead to faster recognition of cases of infectious disease. More direct access to such data could enable surveillance epidemiologists to detect potential public health threats such as rare, new diseases or early-level warnings for epidemics. But how useful are data from social media and the Internet, and what is the potential to enhance surveillance? The challenges of using these emerging surveillance systems for infectious disease epidemiology, including the specific resources needed, technical requirements, and acceptability to public health practitioners and policymakers, have wide-reaching implications for public health surveillance in the 21st century.

Methods: This article divides public health surveillance into indicator-based surveillance and event-based surveillance and provides an overview of each. We did an exhaustive review of published articles indexed in the databases PubMed, Scopus, and Scirus between 1990 and 2011 covering contemporary event-based systems for infectious disease surveillance.

Findings: Our literature review uncovered no event-based surveillance systems currently used in national surveillance programs. While much has been done to develop event-based surveillance, the existing systems have limitations. Accordingly, there is a need for further development of automated technologies that monitor health-related information on the Internet, especially to handle large amounts of data and to prevent information overload. The dissemination to health authorities of new information about health events is not always efficient and could be improved. No comprehensive evaluations show whether event-based surveillance systems have been integrated into actual epidemiological work during real-time health events.

Conclusions: The acceptability of data from the Internet and social media as a regular part of public health surveillance programs varies and is related to a circular challenge: the willingness to integrate is rooted in a lack of effectiveness studies, yet such effectiveness can be proved only through a structured evaluation of integrated systems. Issues related to changing technical and social paradigms in both individual perceptions of and interactions with personal health data, as well as social media and other data from the Internet, must be further addressed before such information can be integrated into official surveillance systems.

Author(s): Edward Velasco, Tumacha Agheneza, Kerstin Denecke, Göran Kirchner, Tim Eckmanns

Keywords: surveillance, health information, Internet, social media

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Volume 92, Issue 1 (pages 7–33)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12038
Published in 2014