Social Media for Oncologists


In this interview we discuss the dissemination of research results, clinical trials, and other oncology news using social media, as well as what type of media oncologists use, and how useful and relevant this type of information is for most oncologists.

Michael A. Thompson, MD, PhD

Michael A. Thompson, MD, PhD

Today we discuss the dissemination of research results, clinical trials, and other oncology news using social media, as well as what type of media oncologists use, how useful and relevant this type of information is for most oncologists, and where oncologists can plug into information and communication sources. We speak with Michael A. Thompson, MD, PhD, who was the medical director of cancer research at ProHealth Care Regional Cancer Center, in Wisconsin, and clinical trials lead investigator of the NCI Community Cancer Centers Program. Dr. Thompson has a blog over on ASCO Connection, a professional networking site for communication within the worldwide oncology community, and he is active on Twitter. You can find his tweets at the Twitter handle, which is the same as a username, @mtmdphd.

-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.”

Cancer Network: As social media has progressed over the last few years, do you see more oncologists, researchers, and clinicians becoming interested in these forms of communication or is it still a small minority of people?

Dr. Thompson: I think it is still a small minority, but it is growing. I think there are more people attempting to use it and getting on Twitter and other social media, and they are not quite sure what to do with it. I have gone from seeing people who were hesitant to use it in institutions which were against social media, to really people embracing it. I think it's where e-mail or websites were a number of years ago, where places just thought social media were a waste of time and didn’t understand it, and now people are getting on and using it. People are always coming up to me asking me to show them how to get on and interact with others. I think the use is growing.

Cancer Network: Do you know who is your major audience on Twitter, or another way to ask the question, what do you see as the major function of your Twitter communication? Is it for fellow oncologists, patients, and advocacy groups?

Dr. Thompson: I haven’t done any sort of formal analytics on my Twitter followers. I think there are some tools for that, but I have not used them. I currently have a little over 2,000 followers and there is a mix of physicians, patients, advocacy groups, pharma, biotech, mobile health, and scientists. I think my audience has evolved as my interests have. I started really focusing on diseases such as myeloma and lymphoma but have increasingly moved to health IT, mobile health, crowdfunding, and drug development more generally. I wouldn’t say that I am really focused on developing a certain following, I just go the way I want to go, and people will figure out if they want to listen to me or not. I recently checked out the site Vizify which has an analytic called “things I say a lot on Twitter,” which is interesting to see what words or phrases you use at specific times. So you could look at the ASH meeting and see the types of cancers discussed and how that has changed over the various meetings. It’s nice to circle back and see what you were doing, but I am not as focused as others on specific disease types, or as some institutions are, on specific parameters. I am changing and doing this on a personal level.

Cancer Network: With so much news, information, and important trial results constantly coming out, how do you see social media, whether Twitter, Facebook, or blog sites benefiting an oncologist’s education?

Dr. Thompson: Everyone has preferences for how they receive information. I tell people that if you follow the correct people on Twitter you can have thought-leader aggregated and filtered information. In my mind, it is actually very efficient to gather useful information on research and for the clinic. You can scan the tweets of people you choose to follow and click on the tiny URL links to articles that you find of interest. You can passively read or engage and interact based on your level of interest with each topic. I usually find that by the time I get my print journals that I have already gone through the information online. Journals often tweet out hot topics even before they send out their e-mail blasts or newsletters. I think how people use it is individualized, and it is for some people but not for others.

Cancer Network: Switching to the patient perspective for a minute, have you seen the way patients educate themselves change as a result of social media and the health-oriented apps that are now becoming much more ubiquitous?

Dr. Thompson: It is interesting. From the time you contacted me for this podcast and this week, I happened upon a tweet chat on Tuesday with Jack Andraka, the 16-year-old who came up with a new test for pancreatic cancer. He was at the State of the Union address, and this young scientist celebrity is really pushing for open access because being a kid, he couldn’t get access to certain information. So there was this online dialog at #HCLDR about kids, but also patients trying to get information. I think that is highly important. The concept of e-patient is growing. I wrote a blog post about this on ASCO Connection. HealthTap is one platform for patient questions, but there are many other patient discussion forums. There is a very good example from Mayo Clinic, in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2011 called “Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection: A Disease-Specific, Social Networking Community–Initiated Study.” There is a great story behind that if people are interested. That study is a successful model for developing a virtual multi-center rare disease registry through disease-specific social media networks and is an example of patient-initiated research that could be used by other health care professionals and institutions. Other institutions and companies are trying to integrate patient design for research as well as crowd sourcing research ideas.

In the realm of mobile applications or apps are software designed to run on smartphones and tablet computers. Health-oriented apps have been part of an increasing interest in mobile health, or mHealth. This is demonstrated by multiple sites focused on organizing and reviewing apps, including iMedicalApps, Medical App Journal, etc. Apple very recently launched an “Apps for Healthcare Professionals” area in iTunes with selections for reference apps, medical education apps, EMR and patient monitoring apps, nursing apps, imaging apps, patient education apps, and personal care apps. Brian Dolan at mobile health news wrote that the FDA mobile health apps 510(k) submissions are being reviewed and cleared quickly through the FDA. States such as California have released guidelines for mobile app privacy, suggesting an interest in keeping and attracting mHealth developers in those states because this is exploding so quickly. The use of mHealth apps for education, diet, exercise, disease, prevention, and remote monitoring is just going to increase over time.

Cancer Network: As someone who is a voice and is active on these multimedia platforms, do you have a message for the oncologist who may not be active on social media but who would like to use it as a tool of communication and education?

Dr. Thompson: I think find a mentor and really understand how to use it. It is quite easy to get on Twitter, and I have set up people on Twitter in the middle of meetings, over dinner. Having someone show you how it works makes it very easy because it can be confusing to know exactly what to do. I would also suggest choosing your username well. I chose my name because it was easy and my name is common so I had to choose something a little bit different, but some people will choose disease-specific names or institution-specific names and these can change over time based on interest. I would choose something a bit more generic. I would also suggest trying multiple platforms. I really like Twitter and using HootSuite or TweetDeck can maximize the experience of using Twitter. But there are other platforms people may like using such as HealthTap, Doximity, Pinterest, ResearchGate, Quora, Facebook, and doing either individual blogs or blogs through institutions. There are a variety of ways people can interact. Social media is not just one concept but multiple things people can try.

Cancer Network: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Thompson.

Dr. Thompson: No problem! Thank you very much.

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