Research Helps Explain Patient Knowledge of Vaccines, Providing Insight for Health Care Providers and Educational Campaigns

May 30, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — Health care providers face a communication challenge when seeing patients who have formed negative or ambivalent opinions on vaccinations through Twitter.

Thanks to research led by Brad Love — an assistant professor of advertising in The University of Texas at Austin College of Communication — clinicians and health care marketers may more effectively address patients' social media-fueled qualms.

Co-authored by Love, University of Georgia Assistant Professor Itai Himelboim and College of Communication graduate students Avery Holton and Kristin Stewart, the study appears in the June edition of the American Journal of Infection Control.

"The importance of this research is that it helps physicians know what kind of information their patients are seeing and sharing in between check-ups," Love said. "By understanding the bigger public conversation, health care providers can better address misunderstandings and promote thoughtful conversation among consumers."

The research group kicked off the study in January of 2012, collecting 9,510 tweets with keywords related to vaccination. After removing extraneous messages and tweets that did not receive engagement, they ended up with a final sample of 2,580 tweets. From this sample, they coded the tweets for tone toward vaccinations (positive, negative or neutral), frequency (times reposted or shared) and links to sources such as news outlets, advocacy groups and health care providers. Scientific claims were categorized as substantiated or unsubstantiated based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases."

Researchers found that a third of tweets were supportive of immunizations in general, 54 percent were neutral and 13 percent were negative. The positive tweets focused on vaccine promotion or comments on effectiveness, the neutral tweets shared immunization experiences and the negative tweets warned of alleged dangers.

The most commonly discussed topics on Twitter were cancer-specific vaccines, work toward a herpes vaccine and the effectiveness of the polio vaccine. While cancer-specific vaccines or general immunizations tended to be discussed positively, HPV vaccines and work toward a herpes vaccine were usually framed negatively or neutrally.

About 14 percent of tweets contained medical information, with more than two-thirds offering content substantiated by medical research. The Twitter findings run counter to YouTube-focused research, which reports almost half of content as ambivalent toward vaccination and often in conflict with reference standards.

Health-focused sites, professional media and medical organizations composed most shared links, with alternative therapy and grass-roots sites constituting a smaller percentage. News and health organizations received more positive reactions than political and advocacy groups.

"Leaders in the medical community — hospital systems, insurance companies, research labs — can benefit from the positive perception of news tweets by being more available to medical reporters and proactively pitching educational stories," Love said. "This will allow their messages to reach people with the extra positivity afforded news tweets."

Love said the lack of response to advocacy tweets might indicate that a better campaign effort would employ more relationship-building, longer-form social media such as Facebook or blogs.

"That way, health communication professionals and the public can have conversations with some degree of depth beyond 140 characters, leaving Twitter as better suited for sharing links or calls to action," Love said.

For more information, contact: Laura Byerley, Moody College of Communication, 512 471 2182;  Brad Love, Department of Advertising, Moody College of Communication, 512-471-3482.