PHILADELPHIA — Across the world, social media users leave a trail of clues about themselves each time they Tweet, post to Facebook, write a Yelp review, and apply a filter and hashtags to their latest Instagram photo. Under the leadership of Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP, researchers and physicians at Penn Medicine are mining those clues to find what ails them – and how to fix it.
Merchant has been named an Associate Vice President for the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Director of the newly created Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health.
“Connectivity and innovation are central elements of Penn Medicine’s strategic plan, and a large and increasing proportion of our patients engage with the world digitally,” said Ralph W. Muller, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “Dr. Merchant’s visionary research is harnessing the power of this engagement to transform the way we deliver health care.”
The Center for Digital Health evolved from Penn Medicine’s Social Media Laboratory, led by Merchant since 2013. Her cultivation of partnerships from across the university — with Wharton, Annenberg, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science — have mapped a strategy and process to systematically evaluate how social media platforms can affect health, and develop new ways for clinicians to improve care delivery through these channels.
Merchant, who is also an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and has secondary appointments in General Internal Medicine and Anesthesia and Critical Care, began her research career in emergency medicine focusing on cardiac arrest. In 2012, she led the MyHeartMap Challenge, a crowdsourcing contest that sent Philadelphians into the community to identify, photograph, and submit locations of lifesaving automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Using the data gleaned from contest participants, her team created a mobile app that maps AEDs throughout the city, putting them at the fingertips of bystanders who can act quickly to save a life when cardiac arrest strikes.
Merchant describes her team’s research as probing “the social mediome” — a way of collectively describing people or groups based on their digital data merged with their health record data. So far, her work has demonstrated the value of mining Yelp reviews for information about patients’ experiences in hospitals, mapped ways in which social media may be harnessed for emergency preparedness and response, and shown that information donated by patients from their Facebook accounts may be paired with their electronic medical records to yield new insights about their health. New areas of research for the Center for Digital Health include identification of factors linked to depression and obesity, and studying social media to trace language changes that may be associated with Alzheimer’s or other types of cognitive decline.
Merchant earned her undergraduate degree from Yale University. She completed medical school and residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Chicago and came to Penn as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, joining the faculty in the department of Emergency Medicine in 2010. She has also served as a policy scientist for the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2012, she was named one of the top 10 national leaders in health care under the age of 40 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and she has been named by Philadelphia magazine as one of the city’s top doctors under 40.