Twitter courts healthcare — but cautiously

As health-related chatter on Twitter picks up, the micro-blogging platform wants healthcare marketers to pay attention — but the company’s pitch isn’t without some qualifications.

At a presentation at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco Monday (Twitter’s first in the health tech conference’s six-year history), Melissa Barnes, Twitter’s head of agency and brand advocacy, said that health-related tweets have increased 51 percent in 2012 so far.

That chatter includes general commentary from Twitter users about their personal health, as well as health education efforts (like the first live-tweeted open heart surgery in February) and policy-related posts.

The most tweeted about health-related event by far? The Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act this June. At the time, it was reported that tweets about the Obamacare ruling peaked at 13,000 tweets per minute.

We’ve also started to see interesting projects use real-time Twitter data for public health purposes. In a study published last July, for example, researchers used Twitter data to reveal interesting patterns about allergies, the flu and other ailments. And some companies are beginning to offer that data to consumers and public health officials, in a way reminiscent of Google’s Flu Trends.

Referencing interesting approaches that brands have taken to drive health-related conversations on Twitter — such as WebMD’s Twitter outreach during last week’s presidential debate and Nike’s Make It Count campaign for its fuelband — Barnes’ general gist was that healthcare marketers should give more thought to giving Twitter a try.

But given regulation around healthcare marketing, she included a few caveats as well. For starters, the company can’t support pharmaceutical advertising and, across the board, the company can’t give legal advice, so it’s on each brand to determine what will work best for them.

“[Health] is something that’s interesting to us, like many other opportunities that we see, but right now we’re approaching it with caution,” Barnes said.

Still, given interesting patient stories shared on Twitter and demand for health-related resources, she said healthcare marketers could find  opportunities in offering thought leadership, general disease information and content related to some current events.