ASCO 2018: Leveraging Social Media to Advance Cancer Research: Challenges and Opportunities

Chicago, IL ( Mina Sedrak, MD, discussed the challenges and opportunities to leverage social media to advanced cancer research. Over the last decade, social media adoption has increased substantially, with 5% of adults in the US having at least one social media site in 2006 to 69% in 2018. Furthermore, health-related social media activities are on the rise, with the use of disease-specific hashtags, such as prostate cancer (#pcsm), kidney cancer (#kcsm), and bladder cancer (#blcsm) for incorporating better streamlining of information.

Despite the encouraging uptake of social media (specifically Twitter) in the oncology arena, there remains a paucity of literature examining the value and direct application of social media in oncology. Dr. Sedrak highlights several examples of gaps in knowledge:

  • How is the participative online environment affecting public health and clinical care as it relates to cancer?
  • Can we leverage it to effectively exchange meaningful information about a subject as complex as cancer?
  • Can we harness it to influence cancer-related health behaviors and clinical outcomes
In fact, peer-to-peer interactions influence individual behavior, such as (i) compliance with diet and nutrition programs, (ii) maintenance of exercise routines, and (iii) adherence to preventative screening guidelines. Additionally, social networks affect collective health outcomes, such as epidemic obesity and smoking behaviors. In Dr. Sedrak’s opinion, social media represents a new and important method for studying social influences on health behaviors, and mining social media data may be a new frontier for personalized or precision medicine. Through social media, there is the potential to examine opinions, attitudes/sentiments, social norms, and reported behaviors among individuals, communities, and population subgroups. Furthermore, social media has the potential to identify communication patterns (ie. information gaps – access, seeking, processing, using) and how this relates to cancer health disparities. There is a potential to design and develop interventions that influence health behavior and outcomes, such as (i) mental health disorders, (ii) smoking cessations, (iii) HIV prevention and treatments, (iv) recruitment for clinical trials and medical research. 

According to Dr. Sedrak, there are several ethical considerations regarding the privacy of data collected, including that research needs to occur in a way that is transparent to patients and consistent with their preference for privacy, research must have institutional review board oversight, and new techniques for anonymizing data from online sources can be utilized. However, there is a lack of standardized methods for collecting data and undertaking research:

  • This is an incomplete, new, and evolving field of research
  • There is a need for conceptual models and standard metrics on how to use social media to study human behavior
  • New approaches are needed, including descriptive procedures (capturing the digital footprints) and intervention procedures (leveraging the impact on an outcome)
Dr. Sedrak concluded with several important take-home message points:

  • Social media represents an exciting frontier in cancer research, but it is still in an early, proof-of-concept stage
  • There are many potentials for social media to provide new scientific insight into how social processes affect health behaviors
  • Challenges do exist and must be addressed
  • Further work is needed to examine how best to study social media and develop innovative methods that promote ethical, accurate, and meaningful findings in the field 
Presented by: Mina Sedrak, MD, MS, Department of Medical Oncology and Therapeutics Research, City of Hope, CA

Written by: Zachary Klaassen, MD, Urologic Oncology Fellow, University of Toronto, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Twitter: @zklaassen_md at the 2018 ASCO Annual Meeting - June 1-5, 2018 – Chicago, IL USA