Sunday, January 20, 2013

Social tool or social isolation?

While most of my colleagues at Hopkins are aware of my social media activities, and I did give a shortened version of my 2012 UC Irvine Grand Rounds talk Social Media and the Digital Physician at a Hopkins breast cancer conference in November, I usually keep a low profile about what I do on Twitter and this blog. Two to three members of the Hopkins breast cancer group are active on Twitter or have blogs, although most of my group doesn't really participate except perhaps for occasional lurking as far as I know. So I thought it was interesting to share on our breast cancer listserv a tweet I wrote last week about the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's presentation Taking Twitter to the Next Level: A Hands-on Workshop. (Props to my Twitter friends Paul Moniz and David Flores for a great slide deck.) I also linked to Vineet Aurora's (@FutureDocs on Twitter) blog and her Top Twitter Myths and Tips. That led to a little discussion among our group about the (perceived) time commitment required for social media. Here's my reply:

OK, I’ll bite (and if everyone else on this listserv find this tedious, I’m sorry and I promise not to make this a soapbox)…

First of all the time issue, I agree if you spend a lot of time on social media at the expense of things that you should be doing like time with family or exercising, that’s not good. On the other hand, like Antonio said, I think we all waste a lot of time aimlessly online, web-surfing to things peripherally related to professional or personal interests – at least that’s what I would do 10 years ago. With Twitter, you follow a group of people and/or organizations, generally those that share some of your interests or in whom you find something appealing, useful, interesting, quirky, etc.,  that then bring content to you via their tweets. Not talking about this replacing purposeful use of the Internet like looking up a specific clinical/scientific question, doing research, etc. which of course I still do as much as ever. But when I want to stay up to date or let myself become exposed to ideas, news stories, articles in journals I don’t regularly read, policy statements, etc. Twitter is a great way to do it. When do I do it? In the morning at 6:00 a.m. before my wife is up and the paper gets here, when I’m eating lunch for 20 minutes at my desk, scattered times during the work day, and right before I go to bed.  The great things about Twitter is it’s always on, and you can read it for 1 minute or 30 at a time. And I post on Twitter sporadically during the day. When I am reading something online be it a JOP/JCO article, someone else’s blog post, a news story – be it medicine, science, informatics, a personal interest like certain types of music – I click the Tweet button on my iPhone and share it.

Now creating something more than Twitter does take time. Like I said in my talk, I do a monthly podcast interview for Journal of Oncology Practice for ASCO where I interview authors of articles. That’s social media but it’s more organized and formal within my volunteer work at ASCO, so that’s not for most people. And having started my own blog this year, that takes a lot of time to do it well. I’m still feeling my way, and realize there is no way I am going to be able to write blog posts every day or two, but so far I have come up with a tiny bit of a following in the past 6 months by posting a few times a month and getting lots of people to read my blog and share the posts.

Re the question of whether social media is a transient distraction aimed only at youth, that train has left the station – it ain’t. It’s a worldwide cultural phenomenon that has touched every industry, nation, social class, etc. Do you all as clinicians, scientists, or other healthcare professionals need to do this to remain relevant for your jobs and for your personal lives? Maybe not yet, but I am of the belief that is changing fast. While we are somewhat protected as being members of the Johns Hopkins community in that our institution has a vibrant social media presence for us, I would submit that by not at least sampling it as an individual, you are missing out on a lot. I also believe you are missing a lot of opportunities for networking and professional growth. That part has been amazing.

In addition to the slides I linked to below, also take a look at this link for a quick view of Twitter by another academic physician: Or follow the blog of someone like Dr. Bryan Vartabedian at for a real visionary. Or, ahem, follow me on Twitter (@rsm2800) or read my blog.

[puts soapbox away and resumes normal life]

So as I was thinking about social media communities and health care professional engagement, I came across this provocative opinion piece in this morning's Washington Post, "Why do we still know so little about Adam Lanza? Because he lived in the cloud." It looks like it's freely available, so it's worth a read if you are able to endure another story related to the horror of the Connecticut shootings. The central thesis of the piece is that one of the reasons we seem to have learned so little about the shooter is that his interactions were essentially all virtual - because they could be. The author goes on to cite experts on both sides of this issue, those that claim that the availablility of virtual communities and social networks promotes social isolation in the real world and those that claim just the opposite. 

This article is interesting but purely speculative, since the police report on the Newtown massacre hasn't been released yet, and to date there is little confirmation of any of this. I'm not suggesting by juxtaposing my earlier comments about the importance of Twitter to healthcare professionals and patients that there is any connection with psychopathic shooters at all. But I do think this - we need a lot more research to understand how social networks and connections work in healthcare and medicine. While I admit I am an enthusiast and see the potential promise for improved health outcomes, professional connection leading to collaboration, and a breaking down of barriers between physicians, researcher, and patients, like any cultural phenomenon there is a dark side that needs to be illuminated, studied, channelled into something better (if it can), or parts of it walled off if it can't. I know that in addition to the concern about the time commitment and misperception of purpose (i.e., Twitter is only for 20-somethings talking about what they had for breakfast) these are reasons why some of my colleagues assiduously eschew social media for now. I am just concerned that the honeymoon between healthcare-related social media (aka the Twitter hashtag #hcsm) and early adopters like me might be winding down. The existence and promise of a phenomenon is not sufficient to justify its continued promulgation in something as important as patient care and research. I do believe that we will ultimately conclude that #hcsm is a tool and communication channel worth using in healthcare, medicine, and science. But we better get to work examining and proving hypotheses about it before another Washington Post columnist starts some darkly-tinged speculation on what we having been doing so far with it.

1 comment:

  1. Great document Miller. Doctors need to embrace use of social media in marketing of their services.

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