Digital Cohort Studies Have Arrived, and They Are Giving Interesting Health Data

Digital cohort studies using social media data provide unprecedented insights into health behaviours like vaping, revolutionizing public health research.

A new study from the University of California San Diego, led by John W. Ayers, Ph.D., of the Qualcomm Institute, has harnessed social media to gather vast health data through a new method termed the ‘digital cohort’. Published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the research focuses on understanding health behaviours, with a particular emphasis on the vaping epidemic.

Dr. Ayers explained the innovation behind their approach: “Researchers studying social media have tended to analyse the frequency and content of posts. While this can highlight trends and patterns, a longitudinal study that follows a group of the same individuals over time—a cohort—is considered the gold standard of observational scientific evidence. We have introduced a way to create a ‘digital cohort’—a 21st-century evolution of this important technique—to study e-cigarette vaping behaviour, including how long it typically takes to show signs of addiction, experience adverse effects and try to quit.”

The study further benefits from the insights of Davey Smith, M.D., chief of the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health at UC San Diego. Dr. Smith emphasised the scope of their research: “Cohort studies have been the backbone of medical knowledge. Despite their value, cohort studies are incredibly resource-intensive and time-consuming to conduct. With our digital cohort approach, we can study populations at an unprecedented scale by leveraging the wealth of data people are organically sharing on social media platforms.”

The research involved analysis of over 19 million vaping-related tweets, from which the researchers identified 25,112 X (formerly Twitter) accounts that mentioned vaping in at least 10 posts, creating a digital cohort with a combined 43.8 million person-days of observation.

Findings from the study revealed significant insights into the cessation journey of vapers. Dr. Ayers shared: “These findings give us a lens into the vaping cessation journey that has been difficult to obtain through traditional research methods. By tapping into the real words and experiences of people who vape, this approach can guide more timely and effective public health interventions.”

The digital cohort method is set to expand its application, with the team planning to explore other critical health issues in collaboration with decision makers. The study’s broader implications for health research and policy-making are significant, as highlighted by the authors. Dr. Michael Hogarth, M.D., a co-author of the study, noted the importance of this method in understanding patient experiences, while Mark Dredze, Ph.D., emphasised the rapid identification and characterisation of emerging health issues that the digital cohort approach allows.

This method, combining traditional scientific rigour with modern digital tools is an interesting new approach to the digitisation of research and a lot of potential in the field of public health research, offering both scale and speed that were previously unattainable.

You can read the full study titled “A Digital Cohort Approach for Social Media Monitoring: A Cohort Study of People Who Vape E-Cigarettes” in American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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