Amid snarky comments and links to cat videos, some Twitter users turn to the social network to find and post information on health issues like cardiac arrest and CPR, according to a U.S. study.
Over a month, researchers found 15,234 messages on Twitter that included specific information about resuscitation and cardiac arrest, said the study published in the journal Resuscitation.
"From a science standpoint, we wanted to know if we can reliably find information on a public health topic, or is (Twitter) just a place where people describe what they ate that day," said Raina Merchant, the study's lead author and a professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
According to the researchers, they found people using Twitter to send and receive a wide variety of information on CPR and cardiac arrest, including their personal experiences, questions and current events.
Some researchers and organizations already use Twitter for public health matters, including tracking the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic and finding the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak, the researchers said.
For the study, the researchers created a Twitter search for key terms, such as CPR, AED (automatic external defibrillators), resuscitation and sudden death.
Between April and May 2011, their search returned 62,163 tweets, which were whittled down to 15,324 messages that contained specific information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.
Only 7 percent of the tweets were about specific cardiac arrest events, such as a user saying they just saw a man being resuscitated, or a user asking for prayers for a sick family member.
About 44 percent of the tweets were about performing CPR and using an AED. Those types of tweets included information on rules about keeping AEDs in businesses and questions about how to resuscitate a person.
The rest of the tweets were about education, research and news events, such as links to articles about celebrities going into cardiac arrest.
The vast majority of the Twitter users send fewer than three tweets about cardiac arrest or CPR throughout the month. Users that sent more tweets typically had more followers - people who subscribe to their messages - and often worked in a health-care related field.
About 13 percent of the tweets were re-sent, or retweeted, by other users. The most popular retweeted messages were about celebrity-related cardiac arrest news, such as an AED being used to revive a fan at a Lady Gaga concert.
"I think the pilot (study) illustrated for us that there is an opportunity to potentially provide research and information for people in real time about cardiac arrest and resuscitation," Marchant said.
"I can imagine in the future we will see systems that would automatically respond to tweets of individual users. Twitter is a really powerful tool, and we're just beginning to understand its abilities."
(Reporting from New York by Andrew Seaman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine)