Richard Smith: Meet and learn from Dr Twitter

Richard Smith At a meeting in Copenhagen earlier this week Bertalan Mesko was introduced as “the world leader in social media and medicine.” After listening to him and looking at some of his websites I decided that this was not an exaggeration. If you want to be up to the minute on social media and medicine you need to know about Mesko and his works.

Mesko began his journey through social media in 1996 while a medical student in Hungary and has been as known as Dr Twitter since the New York Times described how he used Twitter to make a diagnosis on a 16 year old who had had six episodes of acute pancreatitis. Mesko is clear that you won’t have such success by sending such a Tweet unless you have put in the work to build up a community of a knowledgeable group of followers whom you trust.

Like all enthusiasts for the potential of social media to advance medicine Mesko discovered that his seniors thought social media frivolous and of no relevance to medicine. “We don’t have time for all that stuff,” is the usual response from older doctors.

But Mesko thought exactly the opposite: “I don”t have time not to use social media because social media can help me filter the torrent of new medical information that pours out every minute of every day.” He was able to use his 19 000 followers on Twitter to identify the most important new information, and 15 minutes a day would allow him to keep up.

There is, thinks Mesko, a horrible gap between the increasing number of empowered patients (e-patients, as he likes to call them) who are open, tech savvy, and using social media to manage their health and the majority of clinicians who are not open, technically illiterate, and scornful of social media. It’s his mission to close that gap, and he has two ways to do so.

The first way is to share his way of keeping up to date, and so he has created Webicina, a free website that provides for both clinicians and patients curated and updated information on 80 medical topics in 17 languages. Curated is a very important word for Mesko, and I’ve noticed that it’s a very fashionable word. Once it was only art exhibitions that were curated, now almost everything is curated. Mesko has a clear system of curation. Firstly, he uses his network to crowdsource each day what is important. (If you’ve not seen crowdsource used as a verb it’s time you did.) Secondly, his team prepare and refine the information. Thirdly, he checks it himself.

Mesko’s second way to help clinicians to be able to use social media effectively was to create a course. He teaches this as a live course in Hungary, but when one doctor from Britain was so enthusiastic about the course that he planned to fly to Hungary every week for many weeks to take the course Mesko decided that he needed to put the course online—and he has.

The free course has 16 modules covering such topics as the basics, search engines, being up to date, and e-patients, and each module has a test. (The tests are hard. Mesko has failed some himself). So far a thousand people have taken some of the course with people from the US and Australia being the largest groups, but only five people have passed every test and been crowned as “ultimate experts.” Why don’t you have a go?

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

Competing interest: RS was speaking at the same meeting as Mesko to illustrate that white haired docs can also use social media. He had his expenses paid and was given a half litre of an excellent beer from a microbrewery (“Carlsberg is rubbish,” say keen Danish beer drinkers) and half an excellent meal (it was only half, the cold half, as he had to leave for the airport).