Research Collaboration Uncovers Biases in UK/US Physician Discussions on E-Cigarettes

With the growing use of electronic cigarettes in global markets and age groups, public opinion on their use has ranged from acceptance as an alternative to other forms of smoking (and potentially as a smoking cessation aid) to growing concerns about long-term health effects, especially in teens. To cut through the noise it is vitally important to understand what medical professionals really think about “e-cigs” and the associated public health issues.

Last year, in an effort to broaden our collaborations with academic researchers, the MDigitalLife team at W2O Group collaborated with Dr.  Gary Wilcox and Elizabeth Glowacki from the University of Texas Center for Health Communication and Moody College of Communication, to conduct a study of how physicians on Twitter might be discussing electronic cigarettes differently between the United States and the United Kingdom.

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In this study, 5,516 social media posts were pulled from profiles in the MDigitalLife Health Ecosystem over a 1-year span (June 2015 to June 2016) and clustered by topic to assess differences between the two groups of physicians. We are pleased to announce that the study by lead author Elizabeth Glowacki was published in the February 2017 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, and is available at here. The abstract from the publisher’s website is available below:

Medical professionals are now relying on social media platforms like Twitter to express their recommendations for the use or avoidance of products like electronic cigarettes (e-cigs), which may have long-term health consequences for users. The goal of this study is to compare how physicians from the United States and the United Kingdom talk about e-cigs on Twitter and identify the topics that these groups perceive as salient. Comparing tweets from the U.S. and U.K. will allow for a better understanding of how medical professionals from these countries differ in their attitudes toward e-cigs. This information can be also used to inform policies designed to regulate the use of e-cigs. Using a text-mining program, we analyzed approximately 3,800 original tweets sent by physicians from the U.S. and the U.K. within a 1-year time span (June 2015 through June 2016). The program clustered the tweets by topics, which allowed us to categorize the topics by importance. Both sets of tweets contained debates about the degree to which e-cigs pose a threat to health, but the U.S. tweets emphasized the dangers of e-cig use for teens, while the U.K. tweets focused more on the potential that e-cigs have to be used as a smoking cessation aid. Doctors are using Twitter to share timely information about the potential risks, benefits, and regulations associated with e-cigs. Evaluating these tweets allows researchers to collect information about topics that doctors find important and make comparisons about how medical professionals from the U.S. and the U.K. regard e-cigs.

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Several interesting findings emerged from the study. US physicians tended to post more frequently about concerns over teen e-cig usage, and FDA regulations for e-cigs. A recent study on high school students in Connecticut has underscored some of the concern in the US over teen e-cig usage and the need for improved regulations. However, UK physicians tended to not focus on teen usage, and instead tweeted more frequently about using e-cigs as a smoking cessation aid and as an alternative to other forms of tobacco use. A broadly publicized recent study in the UK found that e-cig users had much lower levels of certain toxins and ties into regional campaigns to bill e-cigs as a healthier alternative to certain types of smoking.

It is strongly in the public’s interest to be aware of differences (regional or otherwise) in the online messaging around public health issues by healthcare providers. The MDigitalLife team is proud to help with important research into physician online discussions, and we look forward to more exciting collaborations in the future.

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To learn more about MDigitalLife’s Online Health Ecosystem Database and we can help you to understand (and ultimately engage) the audiences you care about, contact us!

Yash Gad, Ph.D.
Yash Gad, Ph.D.
Data Scientist, MDigitalLife
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