How physicians can overcome social media anxiety on Twitter

Social media holds a lot of potential for the health care professionals.  Is fear of the medium inappropriately leading to professionals avoiding this “social situation”? Have we created a social media anxiety syndrome?

We are aware of the social anxiety disorder or social phobia.  Among its many features are (this is a convenient list for the purpose of this post and not a strict definition):

  • Avoidance of interaction with others
  • Fear of being in a group, or being the center of attention
  • Fear that is made worse by a lack of social skills or experience in social situations
  • Possibly false beliefs about social situations
  • These factors lead to avoidance to of social situations

Let us take a health care worker who has not used social media.

  • It is possible that s/he would equate the term “social media” with Facebook and Twitter
  • Will likely be exposed to reports of unprofessional conduct on Facebook and Twitter and is afraid of getting in trouble
  • May be unaware of how one can have a closed Facebook account (so no patient can send you a friend request), how one can have protected tweets so only authorized people can see them
  • Is quite unaware of useful applications of social media (e.g. RSS and feed readers to stay current with literature, use of Twitter to create a personal learning network, use of blogs to practice reflection)

And as a result of the above reasons, avoids the entire medium.

While there are clearly legitimate concerns about the use of social media by health care professionals, some of the potential problems can be averted by taking appropriate safeguards and some of the beliefs may be false.  It is possible that the voice of some experts is missing from the social media universe due to unfounded fears about this “social situation.”

Have we created a social media anxiety syndrome that prevents the voice of key people from being heard?  Do we need to develop some “baby steps” to help them?  Consider the following as an example.

Baby steps for Twitter:

  • Create a private account (called protecting your tweets) and practice tweeting.  Try adding a link to an online journal article and a short comment.  No one else can see this tweet unless you authorize it.
  • Under “Whom to Follow” find someone whose ideas and writings you want to follow, like Atul Gawande.  His Twitter handle is @Atul_Gawande.  You will now see their comments and links to articles and speeches.
  • After you have added a few tweets, ask a friend or colleague who uses twitter to follow you.  You will need to authorize this.  They can give you feedback and show you some tips and tricks.
  • Create a private group twitter account – you can use GroupTweet for this.  This can be used to share informal learning objectives between residents on hospital service, for instance.
  • Once you feel comfortable, you can unprotect your account and move towards creating a global learning network for yourself.

Do you believe that social media has some value for a health professional? If so, would it be more valuable if more professionals were to participate in this medium? If so what is stopping them? Can we help remove some barriers?

Neil Mehta is Associate Professor of Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and blogs at Technology in (Medical) Education.

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  • Jason Boies

    Good post here, Dr. Mehta.

    You’ve provided some great starting points here for the health professional looking to jump into Twitter.  About the only thing I’d add is the use of hashtags to find relevant conversations and helpful links.  Hashtags will also help with the “Who to follow” question as well.  You’ll find plenty of informative industry pros consistently using the same hashtags day in and day out. 

    There’s a terrific database of Healthcare related hashtags to be found here –>

    Happy Tweeting

    Jason Boies

  • Neil Mehta

    @Jason thanks for the link to the healthcare hashtags.  Good point to add to the baby steps above – find one or two hashtags to follow in addition to some Tweeps.

  • Matt Langan

    Nice post, yet again Dr. Mehta and thank you for referring me to GroupTweet. I wasn’t aware of that service – excellent!

    For doctors, I would recommend creating one account for business that does identify them, like I do (my business’ name is CadenceMed so I have account called @CadenceMed) and then another one for personal matters that doesn’t necessarily identify them (e.g. @flyfishermanmatt – that’s not my account, but an example of what it could be) so that they don’t feel pressured to tweet only business-centric thoughts and have the flexibility to use it to talk about their other interests/passions (if you ever get out of the office :) ) . It is yet another way to tip-toe into the environment and allay any sort of social anxiety that might crop up.

    • Neil Mehta

      This could work for some folks once they are comfortable with the Twitter environment.  Do you ever catch yourself tweeting under the “wrong” account?  
      Another option that might work for some is to use FB for personal posts and keep Twitter for more public posts?

  • Natasha Burgert

    Great post, Dr.Mehta.  I would add that most physicians are unaware that social media outlets, including Twitter, can be explored without even creating an account. For some docs, intentional observation may increase a desire to participate even before they sign up for an account. By searching a medical specialty, or a specific contributor as you mentioned, anyone can get more familiar with the medium and message without having to fully “dive in.”

    • kevinmd

      Great point, I didn’t even realize that myself. I’m going to mention that in my presentations to docs.


    • Neil Mehta

      Agree, this could be the first Baby step!

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