Financial Conflicts of Interest Prevalent Among Hem/Oncs Using Twitter

January 19, 2017

The majority of hematologist-oncologists who use the social media platform Twitter had some financial conflict of interest, according to new data.

The majority of hematologist-oncologists who use the social media platform Twitter had some financial conflict of interest (FCOI), according to new data published as a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Our results raise the question of how FCOIs should be disclosed and managed in an age in which information, interpretation, and criticism associated with cancer products and practices are increasingly available on social media,” wrote researcher Derrick L. Tao, BS, of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and colleagues. “As a minimum standard, physicians who are active on Twitter should disclose FCOIs in their 5-line profile biography, possibly with a link to a more complete disclosure.”

According to the researchers, more than 60% of tweets authored by medical professionals in the United States are health related, and a small percentage also mention commercial products or services. However, no prior study has looked into the prevalence of relevant FCOIs among these Twitter users.

Tao and colleagues constructed a set of hematologist-oncologists active on Twitter with primary affiliation in the United States and assessed their FCOIs for 2014 using data publically available through Open Payments. They evaluated general payments (payments not associated with a research study) and research payments.

The researchers looked at 57,515 Twitter accounts and identified 642 hematologist-oncologists, including 8 who were employees of the biopharmaceutical industry. That left 634 hematologist-oncologists assessed for conflicts of interest; of these physicians, 504 (79.5%) had information reported on the Open Payments website for at least one FCOI.

The hematologist-oncologists evaluated from Twitter received a median of $1,644.77 in general payments and $11,064.21 in research payments. Of the 634 hematologist-oncologists, almost three-fourths (72.4%) had received general payments: 62.6% received more than $100 and 44.3% received more than $1,000.

The researchers pointed out several limitations to the study, including the fact that many hematologist-oncologists on Twitter have only minimal user activity.

“Another limitation of this study is that we were unable to examine use of Twitter over time, whether non–hematologist-oncologists are active on Twitter and have conflicts, whether physician tweets are associated with FCOI, and whether hematologist-oncologists are tweeting about products or companies about which they are conflicted,” they wrote.

To avoid potential conflicts of interest in the future, Tao and colleagues recommended the use of the hashtag #FCOI in tweets that discuss specific products that may cause an FCOI.