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Twitter is Trending in Academic Medicine

Toni Gallo
February 21, 2017

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Twitter has changed how he works, said Jason Frank, MD (@drjfrank), a clinician-educator at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (@RoyalCollege). Frank is among a number of health professionals who are using this social media platform to share their scholarship, engage with the public, build new social networks, and advocate for change.

Twitter offers a means for educators, clinicians, and researchers to communicate and stay connected with each other in real time through brief 140-character messages. Instead of waiting to discuss new research in-person with a handful of colleagues or at a conference, academic medicine professionals can reach more people in more places through social media. “Within the next decade, you won’t be able to be a successful scholar without having some activity on social media,” Frank predicted.  

Social Networking Use Shot Up in the Past Decade

Percentage of all American adults and internet-using adults who use at least one social networking site.

aamc-news-article-social-network-useage.jpg
Source: Pew Research Center surveys, 2005-2006, 2008-2015. No data are available for 2007.

Advancing scholarship one tweet at a time

Stressing the impact of Twitter, Frank said he relies on #meded as one of his primary sources of information about new education research and to build a community of practice. By searching the social media network for this hashtag, he is quickly able to find other colleagues who are tweeting about medical education. For example, Frank might share a tweet (known as retweeting, or RT for short) about a new medical school curriculum and add context by commenting on how that information applies to his own work. Then another educator, someone outside North America perhaps, might read Frank’s tweet, which she found through a #meded search of her own, and add a comment about a course she introduced at her school. Now, a conversation has started about this new curriculum that stretches across the globe.

“Within the next decade, you won’t be able to be a successful scholar without having some activity on social media.”

Jason Frank, MD
Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

These conversations benefit not only the participants, as they learn from each other, but also their followers, who are able to monitor and take part as the conversation unfolds. Twitter is “a way to connect with scholars all around the world who you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to connect with,” said Lauren Maggio, MS , MA, PhD (@LaurenMaggio), associate director of distributed learning and technology in the Department of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (@USUHSPAO).

In addition to learning about others’ research on Twitter, both Frank and Maggio said they use the platform to share their own research with other scholars to increase the influence of their work.

Reaching a broader audience

Another reason to start tweeting? According to the Pew Research Center (@pewresearch), social media use is ubiquitous across genders, races, and nearly every other demographic comparison. Potentially, you can reach 313 million adults worldwide who have Twitter accounts. Using Twitter, physicians can reach outside academic medicine to patients and the public, two groups that have traditionally been hard to engage.

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE (@seattlemamadoc), a pediatrician and the chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital (@seattlechildren), said that social media allows her to amplify her voice and reach a wider audience in a short amount of time.

After talking in the exam room with parent after parent about the value of vaccinating their children, Swanson realized that she could reach more parents by blogging and tweeting about vaccine science and safety than she could counseling one person at a time in the exam room. While others were using social media to spread untruths that were changing the face of vaccine science, Swanson used her Seattle Mama Doc blog and @seattlemamadoc Twitter handle to present the facts from experts in the field.

Without social media, Swanson estimates she could reach about 25 patients a day in the clinic and 10 more in care coordination. With social media, though, she can connect with millions with campaigns such as the 2015 #MeaslesTruth TwitterStorm that reached 20 million people in 10 minutes.

Although interactions like these on Twitter may not be as intimate as those in the exam room, they are helping families to understand science. “I don’t know how to practice without these tools anymore,” said Swanson.

Creating new social networks

As a way to process grief, Sarah Bernstein, MD (@sbernsteinmd), a pediatric resident at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago (@uiccom), wrote about the first patient she lost. More than 170 people tweeted about her essay published in the journal Academic Medicine. Through these tweets, Bernstein connected with other physicians and nurses who had similar experiences, as well as with families who lost children or had babies in a neonatal intensive-care unit. From her story, these families told her, they learned “how much heart had gone into caring for their children.” Bridging the gap between families and physicians in this way wouldn’t have been possible without Twitter.

Using Twitter is an easier and less invasive way to reach out to a stranger than speaking in person or sending an email, said Bernstein. In this case, Twitter not only encouraged these connections, but also served as an avenue for comfort and healing for both families and a physician alike.

Enacting change

Twitter also allows physicians to take action. On Sept. 30, 2015, the McGill Qualitative Health Research Group (@MQHRG) tweeted an excerpt of a rejection letter their scholars received from the journal BMJ (@bmj_latest). The rejection stated that “qualitative studies are an extremely low priority [for BMJ].” That same day, scholars from around the world used Twitter to express their outrage. They organized to submit an open letter in response to the decision. Hundreds of tweets were sent in the first few days using #BMJnoqual. Three weeks later, 76 researchers from 11 countries had signed the letter, which argued for the value of qualitative research.

In February 2016, BMJ published the letter. More than 1,600 people have since sent upward of 2,200 tweets about it, triggering BMJ editors to respond with their own open letter and a formal call for articles about qualitative research.

“If you’re in health care, social media is a critical element,” said Frank. For those not already on Twitter, communication departments of most academic medical centers will be able to provide guidance and share policies about how to engage in social media in a responsible, ethical manner.

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