A researcher at Penn State University is pushing public health officials to seriously consider the power of social media.

"Digital epidemiology" is already changing health care, according to assistant professor of biology Marcel Salathé and colleagues. Their essay "Influenza A (H7N9) and the Importance of Digital Epidemiology" in the New England Journal of Medicine tells the story of a novel flu that cropped up this spring in China.

"The Chinese have their own Twitter, which is called Sina Weibo and on April 3, when these news reports started coming out, someone posted the image of a medical record for a patient who had H79N influenza," Salathé said. "Shortly after that, the Chinese government admitted to these cases."

Salathé says intelligence from Twitter other social media can move health surveillance along, but there are challenges.

"You can't just have someone look at a bunch of tweets, because you would be overblown by the data volume," he said. "And it's not just something you can do when you already have an outbreak, at that point you already need to have these systems in place."

Salathé said it will take a mix of human and computer intelligence to effectively scan for patterns and track disease.