Social media isn’t only being used by retail customers to complain about their latest experience with customer service. It’s also being used by patients questioning the benefits of narcotics medication prescribed for chronic pain.
Led by the Cedars-Sinai Center for Outcomes Research and Education, researchers examined social media entries published by patients. The team analyzed more than 2.5 billion tweets from Twitter and posts from social media forums such as askapatient.com.
The study, published in the Journal of Opioid Management, revealed that clinicians aren’t discussing potential side effects of opioids when prescribing the highly addictive drugs to their patients — at least that’s what their patients are suggesting on social media.
Study author Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research and director of the Center for Outcomes Research and Education, said via email that he and his team recognized fairly quickly that the online discussion surrounding opioids and their side effects is overwhelming.
“We found thousands of people online who are struggling with how best to use their pain medicine,” he said. “The messages reveal a profound impact of pain on people’s lives, and, in some cases, and even more profound struggle with how to balance the side effects of their pain medicines with managing the pain itself.”
Included in the online messages are complaints of numerous gastrointestinal issues from narcotics, including nausea, vomiting and constipation — the most frequently cited issue.
Commenting on the study’s impact on the country’s opioid epidemic, Spiegel said his team’s findings may not directly contribute to curbing painkiller addiction.
“But it highlights that many patients need more information, more education, and perhaps a more meaningful relationship with their doctors,” he said. “If doctors can carefully and thoroughly explain the side effects of pain medicines with their patients, then it may lead to less misunderstandings and misuse of opioids.”
The report’s limitations include: the possibility of a single individual posting a multiple social media accounts and the impossibility of linking results to any specific group (since the demographics of the writers were unknown).
As for additional research on the topic of clinicians using social media to explore serious side effects of pain medications, Spiegel noted that there’s a need to “understand what happens in the four walls of a clinic room when patients and doctors discuss opioids.”
“How effectively do doctors explain the pros and cons of these medicines? How well do they answer patients’ questions from the start? How thoroughly do they educate patients?”
He added: “We need to study all of this.”