Social Media for Oncologists

Social media now plays a big role in our everyday communication. For example, did you know that:

One out of every seven minutes spent online is on Facebook.
340 million tweets are sent each and every day.
Pinterest is the social network that skews most heavily towards female users, whilst Google+ is predominately used by men.
300 million pictures are uploaded to Facebook every day via Instagram.
61 percent of LinkedIn members use it as their primary professional networking site.

Despite the ability to find an abundance of useful and non-useful information on the web, there are a surprisingly low number of oncologists who use social media as a gateway portal of communication. When the industry wants to look at bridging the distinct gap between young and adult cancer populations, I feel like they should look at technology as a method of doing so. Changing the approach from “what can we do to get them the help they don’t know they need” to “where can we go to get them that information” is the key, in my opinion, to increasing the likelihood of successful, long-term outcomes of young adult cancer survivors.

The following article is an interview with Michael A. Thompson, MD, PhD about the dissemination of clinical research, news, and interaction using social media. It is published at

Social Media for Oncologists
by Michael A. Thompson
Interviewed by Anna Azvolinsky, PhD

CANCER NETWORK: As a journalist, I use Twitter as well as Facebook to communicate news articles and news to an audience. Many journalists and other professionals in the media are very active on these social media interfaces. While I was at the American Society of Hematology (ASH), which takes place every December, I was struck by how large this conference was (over 20,000 people), how many important trials and how much data were being reported, and yet I didn’t find that many physicians were using social media tools to communicate and discuss the results. So my first question is, how did you get started with your ASCO blog and how did you become active on Twitter?

DR. THOMPSON: First, thank you for having me on today. Not all large national meeting have active social media users or tweets yet, but that is changing. I think ASH is a few years behind the tweet volume of the larger ASCO. However, in social media, usage can change rapidly. For instance, I helped my colleague Dr. Tapan Kadia (whose Twitter handle is @TapKadia), a leukemia specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center set up a Twitter account at the June 2012 ASCO meeting. He minimally used it until the December 2012 ASH meeting where he became a prolific and influential tweeter. There were some analytics looking at his impact and range of use. Dr. Robert Miller (@rsm2800) and colleagues reviewed Twitter use at the ASCO 2010 and 2011 meeting and published their analytics in the Journal of Oncology Practice in 2012. In that article, they concluded that despite the 140 character limit, Twitter “was successful used by physicians at the 2010 and 2011 ASCO Annual Meetings to engage in clinical discussions, whether or not an author was on site as a live attendee. Twitter usage grew significantly from 2010 to 2011. Professional societies should monitor these phenomena to enhance annual meeting attendee user experience.” Unfortunately, we don’t have an updated analytics for the ASCO 2012.

In terms of how I got started with the ASCO blog, it was through my interactions with a number of ASCO staff. Around the time of the Arab Spring Middle East uprisings in 2011, I attended the MD Anderson Cancer Center CCOP meeting, the Community Clinical Oncology Program. Dr. Mike Fisch, MD, MPH, (@FischMD), who was the medial director for the CCOP was preparing a talk introducing the concept of social media to the group. As he was self-educating himself, he mentored me on starting on Twitter. Since then we have gone back and forth educating each other on various aspects of social media. I attended my first “tweetup” at the ASCO 2011 meeting and really had no idea what I was doing at that time. I ended up ramping up my tweeting at that meeting and liked the ability to share my thoughts with a larger community. Then, based on my interest, I was asked by the ASCO Integrated Media and Technology Committee to join their committee and was fortunate to interact with the amazing IT staff at ASCO, and they recruited me to blog on the ASCO Connection website. It was my first time blogging, and again, I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I’m still not as prolific as many of my colleagues on there.

Thereafter I attended the Mayo/Ragan Social Media Conference in October 2011 and thought I would learn about some of the technical improvements of how to tweet and use social media and was really impressed by the revolutionary attitudes of people like Dave deBronkart (@ePatientDave) and Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, (@SeattleMamaDoc). My eyes were opened to possibilities of social media, and I’ve been immersing myself since then in these concepts of social media as well as getting more involved in health IT, and mobile health. I have now given presentations and collaborated on manuscripts about social media in oncology. At the ASCO 2012 annual meeting last summer, I worked with Dr. Anas Younes (@DrAnasYounes) and Dr. Bob Miller (@rsm2800) on the topic, “Using Social Media in Oncology for Education and Patient Engagement.”

(Read more here)

In most cases, having access to a medical doctor or physician is similar in effort to unlocking the mysteries of the Shroud of Turn. A call to the oncologist office is the first step in an undefined formula that may leave you feeling like a research scholar before you ever get an answer.

When I first realized that my oncologist not only returned my email, but that he usually provided a response within 24 hours, it opened up a brand new world for me. Having had an average to below average communicative relationship with a different oncologist in the early years of my diagnosis, I was grateful for a simple acknowledgement. This newfound communication made all of the difference in the world. To be able to have access to my doctor made me feel more involved, increased my level of trust and loyalty, and gave me a certain peace about his personal investment into my treatment. All of those important elements were established by a simple method of modern day communication.

If doctors and oncologists want to be able to speak the same language as their patients, consider the online world as the front line. Hospitals that develop policy around limiting social media don’t understand the impact this has on someone looking to develop trust, seek answers, or find the most comforting place to pursue their cancer treatment. Waiting for a foolproof model isn’t a foolproof position.

It’s always reassuring to hear about those in the medical community who embrace social media. The more information and avenues that we’re able to open, the better the community will be served. The perceived hierarchy that has historically hindered access to physicians and oncologists hasn’t accomplished anything beyond setting unnecessary boundaries. It’s time to begin nurturing patient/doctor relationships. The great doctors get it.


Social media infographic [source Creotivo]