Social Media is Exploding – But is it Effective?

About a year ago, I posted about accelerating knowledge translation using Twitter, blogs, and other social media. In some respects, the embrace of social media was still in its infancy – originally, #FOAMed, powered by an independent group of individuals passionate about sharing knowledge and teaching Emergency Medicine. The Emergency Medicine Journal, driven in part by Prof. Carley’s efforts, was one of the first journals to add social media, discussion, and dissemination to their official scope and formally appoint Editors in this domain.

Now, to put it mildly, the scene has exploded.

Each of the major Emergency Medicine journals in the U.S. has at least one social media editor (Annals)(AEM), or an entire social media team. The major conferences, in Emergency Medicine and other specialties, have adopted hashtags (e.g., #ACEP14) and live tweeting by meeting participants as part of knowledge dissemination and promotion. Indeed, an upcoming conference in Chicago, USA, specifically addresses Social Media and Critical Care. Finally, even previously small, individual efforts at knowledge translation, like Academic Life in Emergency Medicine, have gathered momentum and become online clearinghouses of peer-reviewed editorial and educational content, along with their own online Journal Clubs.

The Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors (CORD) issued a long statement on the professional use of social media in by training programs, including a statement that “social media can be a powerful tool”. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently issued guidelines on physicians’ use of social media. The United Kingdom Diabetes Professional Conference broadly covered social media use by endocrinologists to learn from and communicate with patients in a new context. Even other health professional disciplines, such as research nurses, have recognized the power of social media for unexpected viral promotion of clinical topics.

However, despite this enthusiasm, it remains a challenge to measure tangible benefits associated with social media use. Anecdotal stories of professional networking via social media abound – but, ultimately, patient-oriented outcomes as result of knowledge translation ought be the true measure of success. A recent study in Circulation randomized newly published articles to traditional knowledge translation or specific social media promotion – and there was no difference in online views between the two cohorts. The lesson, despite the authors’ conclusion, is not that social media is limited – but the content trumps the distribution method. If a social media stream consists of solely unfiltered noise, rather than useful signal, the entire effort will fail.

While increasing numbers of clinicians and patients are accessing information through alternative digital means, and the potential for education and accelerated knowledge translation through social media exists – individuals and organizations should recognize significant challenges remain. No amount of investment or effort into “social media” replaces useful content, and as more sources contribute to the pool of online information, the more difficult it will be to build a following or measure successful effects.