@JSNMA: Medical Tweets, is this our #future?

Graciano Petersen

MA, Tulane University

The personal, business, and educational uses of social media have impressively blossomed over the last decade. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now household names despite their recent debuts. Facebook, launched in 2004, and Twitter, launched in 2006, have even managed to either spawn their own verbs (facebooking) or repurpose others (tweeting). Both sites began as a way to build and nurture friendships, but have evolved into great advertising tools for businesses, and continue to evolve as potential enhancers to the educational process. As the tools available to diversify and expand the way education reaches students of all levels, medical school educators are learning to use these tools to their advantage.

Educators continue to stress student involvement in the subject matter outside of the classroom as an essential step in the learning process. Online course management systems, now used to track student progress by both the instructor and the student, come with a component built-in to facilitate continued engagement. The discussion board on these online systems can be used to keep students thinking about topics or issues related to themes presented in the classroom.

Some medical school professors have taken this one step further by blogging classroom discussion topics and asking their students to comment on the posts. Blogs and wikis – a short-form, quicker reference version of a blog – allow for a more collaborative and interactive educational experience. Not only students and instructors, but also other web-surfers interested in a posted topic can broaden the discussion by providing another view. Internist Dr. Katherine Chretien has written positively about how blogs can be used to promote professional development among medical students. Much of what Dr. Chretien believes can be attributed to the possibilities associated with blogging. Blogging can offer the more timid student a way to present their ideas free of the glares of their classmates while allowing the appropriately tagged discussion posts to be referenced by the instructor for future exploration. Blogs created by teaching doctors often contain discussions on treatment options; disclaimers included to indicate that they are not intended as substitutes for actual visits to a doctor often accompany them.

While blogs are the most prevalently embraced kind of social media by medical school professors, it has been noted that blog creation is time-consuming. Because many doctors are used to recording their thoughts now, a few have taken to making podcasts as a way of reaching students. These convenient, episodic, audio/video files can be less time-intensive to create for the more technology savvy. Podcasts are unique amongst the social media options due their portability. The files of a podcast are downloadable and can be listened to or viewed on the go. They are excellent teaching tools that can be referenced continuously and like blogs, can reach an extensive audience. Several medical schools, including Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, frequently produce updated and free podcasts subscribed to by many students, but also by those who are just curious about medicine.

Capturing audience response is an important part of judging the effectiveness of social media’s effect on medical education’s changing landscape. A few instructors use automated response systems during lectures to allow students to respond to lecturer questions. Such systems allow lecturers to judge student knowledge while facilitating an open discussion. Interestingly enough, Twitter can be made to work similarly and some instructors have turned to this medium in the classroom. Blogger and physician Dr. Matthew Mintz compares the traditional response system to Twitter in saying that “the students’ web enabled smart phone becomes the “clicker” and they tweet their responses during lecture.” Although not anonymous like the standard response systems in classrooms, Twitter can work as an online response form that categorizes each answer or “tweet” by an associated, preset hashtag. This allows the instructor to capture responses in real time and, like blogs, wiki pages, and podcasts, Twitter has the added advantage of reaching a much broader audience than intended.

The very few surgeons that have taken to tweeting surgical procedures for the benefit of their medical students and residents have gotten international attention.  Tweeting procedures or methods that are rarely done may benefit global medical education by reducing the scare factor associated with the secrecy of rare procedures. According to a CNN story published in February of 2009, Dr. Craig Rogers, lead surgeon on one of the first ever tweeted surgeries, indicated that it was important to demonstrate through live tweeting that the tumor removal could in fact successfully be done. Using Twitter allowed the surgeons to immediately publicize the success of the procedure.

However, Twitter may still be too new, as few medical students – let alone practicing physicians and instructors – are using the social networking site. Given the workload of these individuals, it is not hard to imagine that they would not have time to join Twitter to follow Kim Kardashian’s engagement updates or track the growing trend of True Blood.

As the importance of casting a bigger net to reach a broader audience grows, and the tools to accomplish this task improve, social media will become one of the most influential tools in medical education. Whether they are potential students or residents and practicing physicians, they have already decided to dedicate their lives to the service of people and society. The medical field by definition is social. The field, by necessity, is also dependent on information. Continuing to learn about new procedures and treatment options are part of a physician’s job and this is where the most up-to-date information, or media, comes into play.  Social media joins both aspects by bringing people and information together. Any of the discussed social media outlets can be used as an asset to medical education if used in the right way. How these tools will affect medical professionalism, whether patients will be comfortable with their cases being presented and discussed via Twitter, and whether or not 140 characters will be enough to spark interest, is yet to be seen. It’s safe to say that in some form or fashion, social media will be part of the future of medical education.


Chretien, K., E. Goldman, and C. Faselis.  (2008). The reflective writing class blog: using technology to promote reflection and professional development. J. Gen. Intern. Med., 23(12):2066-70.

Cohen, Elizabeth.  (2009, February 17). Surgeons send ‘tweets’ from operating room. CNN. Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com.

Mintz, Matthew. Using Twitter as an Audience Response System. Retrieved March 13, 2011, from http://drmintz.blogspot.com

Filed Under: Global Health


About the Author: publications@snma.org

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