A paper, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, has suggested that social media habits could be used to improve health.
Dr Sachin Jain of CareMore, along with colleagues from Harvard Medical School, said that questions about cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and exercise habits could soon be answered by looking at online profiles.
According to the team, seeing how people behave online, and also using other behavioural factors, could help dentists and other healthcare specialists to make more accurate diagnoses.
Dr Jain calls these observations “the digital phenotype”, and believes they could help professionals better understand certain health conditions, such as a range of behavioural conditions, which can be expressed through social media in a number of ways.
People are increasingly leaving “a footprint of their health status” by using technology, including social media, forums, online communities, wearable technologies and mobile devices, he said.
This information, according to the report, is of value to a doctor or dentist but the challenge is being made aware of it, being able to access it in a safe way, and interpreting it properly.
In many instances, these digital phenotypes can be an early indicator of an impending health crisis, according to Dr John Brownstein, who also worked on the paper.
Dr Brownstein said: “Our digital breadcrumbs, whether from our online discussions or the health tracking devices we wear, have tremendous potential to inform clinical decision making. The next step is to figure out how these data integrate into traditional electronic medical records.”
For dentists, this could help them better understand why someone has bad oral health as it would give an honest view of their diet and lifestyle habits, which can have a negative impact on dentistry.
Many patients can be untruthful or simply don’t know how much they smoke or how often they drink fizzy drinks. Tools that analyse social media behaviour could therefore be a brilliant way to help patients when properly developed.