Fiona Pathiraja: Twitter – the medium and the message?

Fiona PathirajaIn his BMJ blog last week, David Kerr asked whether Twitter would ever be used for healthcare.  As soon as this blog was posted, the Twitter healthcare community was buzzing with responses including: “It already is [being used for healthcare]: we are developing healthcare through our discussions,” “Does he mean the same Twitter that is currently being used to drive discussion and debate in healthcare?” and “Yes! It will be as normal as phones.”

Private companies use Twitter’s open platform to raise awareness of their brand and use secure micro-blogging systems like Yammer to facilitate cross-organisational discussions between employees. Healthcare often lags behind other industries in embracing new technology but we are finally waking up to Twitter’s potential.  Its capacity for democratisation of information, intellectual capital, and professional networking means that doctors who are not tweeting are missing a trick.

I was recently at dinner with doctors involved in central government health policy, most of whom were incredibly enthusiastic about social media. They talked passionately about using Twitter to keep abreast of the latest healthcare news and innovations, and its value as a professional networking tool. Generally, their productivity levels were high due to judicious time management and the vast choice of mobile Twitter clients available for tweeting on the go.

It seems that Twitter has many benefits for the individual clinician. Social networking certainly encourages intellectual curiosity, networking, and creativity. However, we are still far from it creating system-wide benefits, as it has done in other industries. The Twitter healthcare community is a vibrant one and we have previously been involved with spreading ideas via “hashtagging” key discussion themes e.g. #nhsreforms and #scienceisvital.

As anyone who has managed change knows, it is much easier to do when there is a clear strategy and direction. So perhaps system wide benefits will only come from translating the intangible Twitter healthcare conversation into a tangible Twitter healthcare strategy. This could be through well-targeted hashtagging attached to key conversations, e.g. #qualityimprovement, and carbon-copying interested and influential healthcare Tweeters into your tweets. If tweeting about things integral to your organisation, include them in your tweet, e.g. @dhgovuk, @uclh, or @thekingsfund. The Health Service Journal (@HSJnews) has a list of all NHS trusts that may be a good starting point for this. Strategic tweeting might not seem spontaneous but can help to spread your ideas to a wider audience. These ideas may then come to the attention of people with the organisational power to implement change.

It seems that healthcare is often late in embracing new innovations. However, now that we have engaged with Twitter, perhaps we can apply direction to the healthcare conversation to enable system wide benefits and make a positive difference to our patients. If enough frontline clinicians are tweeting about the value that a Yammer-type system will bring to the NHS, it might just happen. As we have seen with the role of social media in the recent Middle East revolutions, anything is possible.

Those new to Twitter often ask me for recommendations on whom to follow. A selection of my healthcare favourites to get you started (in no particular order):

@doctorblogs Annabel Bentley, medical director, BUPA health and wellbeing
@HPIAndyCowper Andy Cowper, editor, health policy insight
@muirgray Muir Gray, NHS chief knowledge officer
@trished Trish Groves, deputy editor, BMJ
@ndeaks Nicholas Deakin, medical student and former chair, BMA medical students committee
@nedwards_1 Nigel Edwards, acting chief executive, NHS confederation
@silv24 Natalie Silvey, foundation year one doctor
@martinmckee Martin McKee, professor of European public health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
@doctorpreneur Emma Stanton, Commonwealth Fund Harkness fellow, Boston
@cebmblog Carl Heneghan, director of the centre for evidence based medicine, Oxford
@TheBMA The official Twitter feed of the British Medical Association
Read more on this topic in BMJ Careers:
Pathiraja F and Bentley A. Twitter going global. BMJ Careers (January 2011)

Fiona Pathiraja is navigating a medical portfolio career. She has worked as a junior doctor, management consultant, entrepreneur and most recently as clinical adviser to the NHS medical director at the Department of Health. Follow her on Twitter @dr_fiona