Over a month, researchers found 15 324 messages - known as tweets - on Twitter that included specific information about resuscitation and cardiac arrest.
"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 the study's lead author Dr Raina M Merchant.
The researchers did find some 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.
Findings are 'exciting'
Dr Merchant, from the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said they were excited to find so many people talking about these topics in a meaningful way.
The researchers, who published their findings online in Resuscitation, write that some researchers and organisations already use Twitter for public health matters. Those efforts include tracking the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and finding the source of the 2011 Haitian cholera outbreak.
When it comes to such outbreaks, "Right now, it's mostly an educational tool for public health officials or professionals," said Dr Gunther Eysenbach from the University Health Network in Toronto, who is editor and publisher of the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
With more than 500 million Twitter accounts, Dr Merchant said that understanding how tweets can be filtered may allow doctors and other healthcare providers to respond to people's questions in real time, and possibly find new ways to educate the public about health matters, including cardiac arrest and CPR.
How the study was done
For the new study, the researchers created a Twitter search for key terms, such as CPR, AED (automated 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% 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% 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.
Join in and tweet
The vast majority of the Twitter users sent fewer than three tweets about cardiac arrest or CPR throughout the month. Users who sent more tweets typically had more followers - i.e., they had more people who subscribed to their messages - and often worked in a healthcare-related field.
About 13% 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 is that there is an opportunity to potentially provide research and information for people in real time about cardiac arrest and resuscitation," said Dr. Merchant.
"I can imagine in the future we will see systems that would automatically respond to tweets of individual users," said Dr Eysenbach, who was not involved with the new research.
He added that businesses already have systems automatically responding to tweets, and one potential would be for a piece of software to analyse a user's location to locate the nearest AED.
"Twitter is a really powerful tool, and we're just beginning to understand its abilities," Dr Merchant said.
"People should join the conversation and tweet. And healthcare providers should really be part of that conversation," she said.
(Reuters Health, November 2012)