How to Get Medical Insights Through Social Media Listening

Last Updated January 5, 2021

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Social media can provide previously untapped insights for designing clinical trials. Here’s how to listen and learn from the global chatter.

In July 2020, the global social media penetration rate reached 49 percent, with East Asia, North America, and northern Europe having the highest proportion of social media users (71, 69, and 67 percent respectively).

Social media users span all social groups in terms of education, income, and environment, and they share all kinds of content, ranging from the traditional—such as text and images—to the interactive—such as chat and live video.

This vast quantity of varied information provides a potentially valuable resource for the life sciences industry.

But with so much content continually pouring out from a variety of social media platforms all over the world, how can health researchers successfully tap into the specific data that will benefit their work?

What is social listening?

Aggregating and analyzing social media activity can reveal previously unavailable marketing and academic insights. This is referred to as social listening.

Social listening gives researchers access to the kind of everyday conversations that would not be part of traditional research methods. Especially considering that the facts and feelings people share on social media are far more likely to be candid, sincere, and unprompted than those divulged during formal questioning.

How does social listening work?

Social listening uses a carefully constructed list of keywords and phrases to identify which pieces of data to either log or ignore. The gathering of inadvertent data can be reduced by providing ‘negative’ keywords to identify unwanted comments.

This data is then analyzed to discover the sentiment behind each comment: positive, negative or neutral. The resulting information is then turned into actionable data, which can be scrutinized along with all the other data from the research project.

To accomplish all of this, the social listening process involves three distinct stages:

  1. Translation —social media is a multilingual forum, unlimited by language or location
  2. Natural language processing (NLP) — where computers ‘understand’ natural language
  3. Sentiment analysis —the interpretation and evaluation of emotional content within the language being used

How to Leverage Social Listening for Health Research

The retail industry has gleaned data from customers’ social media for years—using the findings to shape product development and marketing policy.

Of course, medical patients are also social media users, but the same social listening process hasn’t been applied as rigorously by the medical sector. Until now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the predicted future of virtual clinical research become a reality. Remote or decentralized clinical studies take advantage of mobile apps, automated wearable monitoring devices, and social media platforms.

Social Listening for Clinical Trial Design

Collating and analyzing social media activity across relevant channels helps companies identify public and professional medicinal concerns. The process may also reveal gaps in knowledge that require further research.

Therefore, the needs identified from social media communities can serve to better inform the design of clinical trials.

For example, Diasome is an organization dedicated to helping people with diabetes. The company routinely uses its social listening team to examine 40,000+ social media posts on diabetes topics in the United States.

By analyzing these online conversations, Diasome identifies key issues of importance to patients and healthcare providers. These findings can then be used to help create clinical trials designed to address the unmet needs of people living with diabetes.

Social Listening for Clinical Trial Recruitment

With so many people ready to engage and speak out on social media platforms, it’s a great opportunity to refine clinical trial recruitment and retention strategies. In these cases, social media is mostly used to complement traditional recruitment methods, rather than replace them.

For example, a randomized controlled trial used social media to recruit 11% (35 out of 311) of their adult participants to assess the effectiveness of behavioral intervention and prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period. Other recruitment methods included word of mouth, recruitment at workplaces, community events, and schools.

Of course, researchers can participate in the social media exchanges too, during which time targeted questions can be asked to elicit helpful patient insights that will further improve trial recruitment decisions.

In order to extract useful data from the vast ocean of social media content, it’s necessary to identify phrases and classify them first into ‘useful’ and ‘not useful’, and then into negative, neutral, and positive opinions.

Concerns over Social Media in Clinical Trials

The benefits of analyzing participants’ social media data for medical research is evident. However, if participants are freely allowed to access social media, there is a danger they will learn information—whether legitimate or spurious—that could impact the trial.

This is especially true with ‘blind’ clinical trials, which are typically used to investigate the efficacy of a drug.

In a blind study, the participant doesn’t know if they are being given the actual drug or a benign placebo. In a double-blind clinical trial, neither the participant nor the researcher would know whether the actual drug had been administered. Discussing the trial with other participants online could lead to ‘unblinding’—the gaining of knowledge that would invalidate the research method.

Another major consideration is that of privacy. Ethical principles determine that consent should be obtained before any attempt is made to gather data. But the participant’s awareness would then undermine the candid nature of the online conversations.

These, and many other concerns, can be mitigated with thorough preliminary work designed to understand participant’s social media practices with respect to ethical issues.

Multilingual Social Media Listening

Using social media to build a complete account from every participant in a clinical trial is highly advantageous. This is especially valuable for remote studies that can involve participants from around the globe.

Summa Linguae Technologies implements global social listening programs in multiple languages with sentiment analysis and full ethical accountability.

Key to SLT’s approach is to not just listen, but really understand, as Jeff Kent, SLT’s Director of Solutions & Operations in North America explains: “Effective social listening in a range of languages requires not a literal translation, but an interpretation that takes into account the full cultural context. This ensures every precise meaning and nuance is captured with absolute accuracy.”

Social listening is only part of the comprehensive service that SLT provides to optimize the effectiveness of international clinical trials.

Contact Summa Linguae today to discover how your next clinical trial can take advantage of multilingual social listening.

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