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Twitter: A vital tool for aspiring doctors?

December 16, 2015

VA researchers and colleagues studied how medical students use Twitter for professional development. (Photo: ©iStock/pixdeluxe)

VA researchers and colleagues studied how medical students use Twitter for professional development. (Photo: ©iStock/pixdeluxe)

If you think Twitter is just a frivolous tool for vapid teen chatter or celebrity gossip, think again. The social media tool has exploded in recent years into a key communications platform for everyone from politicians to playwrights. Thought leaders—as well as regular folks—in every niche of society are using Twitter, with its trademark 140-character limit, to pithily share their ideas, opinions, and visions with whoever is following them. More than 270 million people tweet each month.

So it's no surprise that the medical profession has gotten in on the act, and in a big way. According to an article in the December 2015 issue of Health Communication, titled "Just What the Doctor Tweeted: Physicians' Challenges and Rewards of Using Twitter," more than 75,000 health professionals worldwide share information and discuss treatments on Twitter.

"A lot of times, I don't even know if...the person that I've talked to is faculty or student or resident."

A study in the November 2015 Journal of General Internal Medicine takes a closer look at one facet of the medical world's use of the medium. A team with VA, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and Children's National Health System homed in on medical students' use of Twitter for professional development. They wanted to know: What are the culture and values of medical students who use it? With whom do they interact, and how? And what are they getting out of it?

Nearly 300 medical students took part in study

The team collected and analyzed eight months' worth of tweets from nearly 300 medical students who regularly use Twitter. The researchers learned about best practices by focusing on a subgroup of 31 "superusers" who use the medium heavily for professional purposes, such as sharing journal articles, live-tweeting medical conferences, or taking part in professional Twitter chats with other students or faculty. Ten of these users were also interviewed for the study.

The results reflect well on tomorrow's physicians. Far from whittling away precious time on idle pursuits, these aspiring doctors—especially the superusers—are fast-tracking their careers by networking with peers, hearing patients' honest views, getting quick answers from leading medical experts, and expressing their own views and innovative thinking on pressing medical issues. And they are showing professionalism and good social media sense and etiquette in the process. No rants, for example, and no inappropriate disclosures of patient information.

"Medical student superusers used Twitter thoughtfully" and purposefully, wrote lead author Dr. Katherine C. Chretien and her colleagues. She is a physician at the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She is also an assistant dean for student affairs for the school.

Her group used a research technique called ethnography. Anthropologists have used it for decades, examining cultures close-up by observing and interviewing members and studying their lifestyles. Think Margaret Meade, notebook in hand, on the Samoan islands in the 1920s. Nowadays, researchers use the modern-day digital version of this time-honored method to explore cyberspace—especially online communities, such as the ones that develop around social media.

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Here's some of what Chretien's team learned:

  • Medical students who use Twitter feel they are getting access to important information faster, and in some cases directly from the source. For example, one student shared how during a lecture he asked a question on Twitter and got an answer from a top expert in the field within two minutes—before the instructor in the lecture hall could look up the answer. Students also said Twitter alerts them to key journal articles before other people know about them.
  • Students are interacting with other Twitter users who self-identify as patients with certain medical conditions. The researchers write, "Students seemed to greatly value hearing patient perspectives, gaining greater cultural sensitivity and understanding of what it is like for patients living with their conditions." The students can also hear unvarnished views of the medical system, outside of the face-to-face interactions they might have with patients at their local teaching hospitals and clinics.
  • Students are finding a supportive online community. It's something they don't necessarily find within their own schools. "Students described having a community of medical students that congratulate each other when milestones are reached, help each other study for exams and experience medical school together."
  • Twitter, for many students, is a vehicle to help them establish their professional online presence and "brand," so to speak. Of the 31 superusers in the study, 13 linked to their own blogs through Twitter. The medium not only gives students a way to "craft their digital footprint in a positive way," found Chretien's team, but it's a powerful equalizer in the otherwise stiffly hierarchical milieu of medical education. "It kind of disrupts who gets a voice," said one student. "A lot of times, I don't even know if...the person that I've talked to is faculty or student or resident," reported another.

So next time you're at the doctor's and a medical student seems to be tweeting away, she just might be boning up on the latest treatment for what ails you—and not sharing with friends where she went out for dinner last night.

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