Saturday, March 13, 2010

For Cardiologists: A Twitter Primer

With the explosion of social media, I am amazed at how many cardiologists I encounter who know little to nothing about blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz and the like. "I'm too busy." "Who has time for that stuff?" "I wouldn't have time for anything else." "How can I possibly keep up?"

And yet today, as more and more patients reach out to the web to find medical information or, more importantly, their doctor, physician specialists of all types should probably be asking, "Can I afford to not be connected with social media in one way or another?"

Google yourself.

That's right. Type your name in Google's search box. What appears first? Your name or someone else's? Not there? How many pages down do you have to search to find something about yourself?

For me, I was surprised to find that my Facebook page and blog precedes my professional workplace's website, professional articles, and other sundry information. Hence, it's one small reason I have an online presence.

But for doctors, there are good reasons to be resistant. First, many do not want their details out there. Fair enough. Maybe you've been around enough to have enough references to do the Internet search heavy lifting. Also, there are important reasons, like patient privacy that need to be respected, and the Internet is the last place such conversations regarding patient care should occur. Realize this is not for those kinds of professional conversations. Finally, procedurally-heavy specialists have a hard time sitting behind a keyboard having near-real time conversations with comment streams on a blog. Also, while blogs create an important static chronological log of written works, they also take considerable discipline and time to get off the ground - whether one posts daily, weekly, or monthly. Simply put, if you want readership, you have to post often to your blog. Most cardiologists tell me they feel they are too busy to devote significant time to such an endeavor.

So is there something that can take less of a front-load?

Enter Twitter.

What is Twitter?

For lack of a better way to think about it, Twitter is to blogging as a person with ADHD is to an obsessive compulsive. Twitter is like a flight of ideas, streaming by very quickly, and if you miss the last few hours, you've probably missed the conversation. This is because Twitter only allows brief, 140-character text messages to be posted to the Internet as thoughts, ideas, or interesting web-based articles appear that the author wants to share with others. While it can be a powerful business or networking tool, it can also be a colossal waste of time if the content is unfocused or not used judiciously.

My Steps to Acceptance of Twitter

I was a Doubting Thomas when I first decided to register on Twitter. I was already an established physician blogger. Twitter seemed like a huge time sync. How the heck was I supposed to write a blog and send "tweets" out at the same time? Are you kidding? Seriously?

But then I realized that I can send my blog's RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed over to Twitter using Feedburner or Twitterfeed. Instantly, another large group of people could be automatically notified that I placed a new post on my blog, expanding my blog's reach. Twitter suddenly became a huge networking amplifier above and beyond my current blog subscribers.

Alright, maybe Twitter had a purpose after all.

Later, I would attend a medical blogging conference in Las Vegas. Everyone there was on Twitter, or so it seemed. (I was the only cardiologist, at the time.) Want to send a message to the attendees? Send them a "tweet." It was instant messaging on your cell phone in near real-time. I found it useful to arrange a get-together or meet at a specific time with a specific group of individuals.

That was kind of cool.

Still later, I was watching one of the President's many talks on health care reform on TV. I decided to follow what others were saying about what the President was saying, so I searched Twitter using this thing called a "hash tag term" that always begins with a "#" character. A hash tag is nothing more than a labeled term that represents a topic for discussion. That night I searched on "#hcreform" on Twitter and could see everyone who was kind enough to place that text in their tweet about health care reform. As a result, I learned something and found some other like-minded souls who I could follow further.

Suddenly, Twitter had relevance to at least one cardiac electrophysiologist.

And so I have grown to appreciate Twitter with time. Not as a panacea to all that ailes medicine, cardiology, or my social life, but as a means to transmit information publicly VERY fast and keep up with the constant stream of ideas emanating from others with similar interests to me.

So What Do You Need to Know?

First to start, sign up on and use a short, descriptive name (it's easier to type) and put a good description of yourself under the "Bio" section so people will know your background and to differentiate yourself from marketing spammers (yes, they exist on Twitter, too). If you register as "drjoeblow", then your twitter name becomes @drjoeblow.

Second, you have to "follow" some people on Twitter. This is done by either typing "follow doctorwes" in the text box (without the @ sign), for instance, or clicking on some of the people's pictures of people I follow, reading about who they are, and deciding if you want to follow them too. If you want to send a public message to me, all you have to do is type "@doctorwes Here's my message." and it will come to me. If you want to privately message me (so the rest of the world can't see, I first must be following you on Twitter. Once I follow you, then you can send me a message privately using a "direct message" feature in Twitter by typing "d doctorwes This is my private message." The "d" or "D" at the beginning of the message tells Twitter to send that message to me privately. It also sends me an email telling me you've sent me a private message. (I like that.)

Third, realize people on Twitter as as diverse as there are personalities out there: some are the histrionics's "hyper-tweeting" every detail of their lives ("Heading to Starbucks") while others might be more schizoid and rarely ever tweet, but like to follow along conversations (we call them "lurkers.") Naturally, there are plenty of people in between. Read through what a few of them have "tweeted" and note how many tweets they transmit, then follow only those who appear to have relevance to you and whose frequency of tweets you can tolerate.

Fourth, when you see "RT" in the tweet, it means "re-tweet." This suggests that you like what they broadcast on twitter or wanted to restate their tweet and add come snarky commentary. Either way, the originating tweet gets mentioned so that others can follow that idea thread (or person) and also comment or follow the person.

Another common notation in a tweet you'll see on Fridays is "#FF". The Follow-Friday hash tag is a way to spread the word about your favorite people that you follow and you think might be worthwhile for others to follow. Perhaps one of the more popular #FF folks has been @ConanObrien lately.

Fifth, load a software program like Tweetdeck or HootSuite (available for free) on your computer and/or cell phone to help organize tweets. These software packages can also automatically shorten long URL's of interesting articles into smaller abbreviated URL's that are better to send along side a tweet.

Sixth, if you decide to try this, there are also things called "Lists." Lists can be either public or private. If you want to follow all the people I am that are part of my public ACC10 list, then type "follow @doctorwes/ACC10" and you'll be able to follow all the doctors, nurses and techs attending the American College of Cardiology's ACC10 conference in Atlanta this year that I am. You can also make your own very private lists for your own use.

Finally, some important suggestions:
1. Follow smart people doing work that is relevant to yours. Trash most others.

2. Post relevant, valuable content of interest to your followers.

3. Watch your time on Twitter. At most, I spend 20 minutes a day on Twitter, and I think it would take me far more time offline to gain and share the same information.

4. Do not EVER post patient information - Twitter is public and searchable on Google. 'nuf said.
So there you have it. A crash course on Twitter for Dummies.

Give it a try.

You should find Twitter can be immensely valuable tool to build a valuable professional network while simultaneously assuring an important and relevant online presence.



Clinical Cases and Images said...

Excellent summary with good practical points. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

Recent coverage of social media use by physicians has tended to be on the negative site with focus on litigation risks:

It's good to have a balanced view and to highlight some of the significant benefits as well.

Philippa Kennealy MD MPH CPCC PCC said...

Great to see a busy doc take the time to explain twitter succinctly to colleagues! As a convert who started out skeptical and who now gets all kind of useful info from twitter, I second everything you say! Thanks Dr. Wes.

Al Lautenslager said...

Just like Phillipa above, I recently worked as a social media marketing consultant with a neurosurgeon who went from complete skeptic to advocate in 4 months, working myself out of a job they attached to it so well. I now present to medical associations, "Making the Case for Social Media Marketing for Medical Professionals." Let me know how I can help you spread the word abou the tools available much like you have written about. Very well done.

Al Lautenslager

Social Media Marketing Expert, Consultant and Author of Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days.

Mike Cadogan said...

Thanks @DoctorWes
Great to review the step-by-step process for starting the Twitter journey.
I work with many skeptics who never cease to amaze me with the the amount of time they waste trying to criticize, belittle and undermine our connectedness on platforms such as Twitter
I have always found it difficult to succinctly demonstrate the power and importance of some of the social/professional networking tools I employ.
I hope this article will go a long way to stimulating the inter-connected juices of our health professional colleagues
Thank you for taking the time to share
Mike (@sandnsurf)

Bill Dyer said...

Great post Dr. Wes! In any industry that you're in where you are servicing customers I think it's imperative that you are a part of the social networks. Thanks for empowering the physicians out there to engage with the rest of the world.

carmen2u said...

Wonderful post! You might find the tutorials put together by Lee Aase at the Mayo Clinic very helpful for doctors considering social media, as they cover the basic ground rules and etiquette of the medium in easy-to-understand Powerpoints. They include Twitter and cover all other common social media tools. Heres' the link:

jessicaeder said...

Thanks for this great post, I think that physicians really need peer recommendations to embrace social media. Keep up the good work!

Your perspective inspired a post in my own blog:

Kathy Mackey said...

Thank you Dr. Wes for positively promoting an active roll on social media for physicians especially among cardiologists.


Vineet Arora said...

Thanks for the great post. As a tweeter turned blogger, I also get asked a lot about twitter by med ed faculty and especially encounter myths about it. So here are my top twitter myths and tips

Phaedra Chrousos said...

This is a wonderful primer for a well deserved audience. Tweeting is not that time consuming and can not only be used to promote your brand but also listen and learn from the thoughts of prospective patients.

With regard to brand promotion, we've included a little widget on our Doctor Mini Sites for free that we thought might help doctors 'get on' twitter without have to actually sign up for twitter (ex. A stop-gap if you will!

Would be interested in hearing what everyone thinks about this.

Pharmaguapa said...

Great post and really hope that this encourages other cardiologists but also other physicians to start using twitter and social media more - it is just a great resource.

CrystalMD said...

You said it right. In today's world, an online presence is a no-brainer. Physicians NOT excluded. I wonder how many physicians know what pops up when they type their name in Google search?!