How to get started on Twitter: A primer for doctors

So you’ve decided to take the plunge (or at least, dip your toes) into the Twitterverse.  Congratulations! Welcome to a vibrant interactive community.  You’ll find plenty of different personalities here and lots of opinions.  But if you are like I was back in January 2011, you currently have no idea how to actually use Twitter, let alone how a physician might want to use it.

There are plenty of places to find information about how to start a Twitter account, so I am going to take a leap of faith and say that if you are reading this, you have already set one up.  If not, check out some online resources regarding starting your account and come back to this blog so you can figure out what you might want to do after the basic infrastructure is lay down (or, if you are just relatively adventurous, just head to Twitter and start your account without listening to any of the “pundits”).  This post is not meant to give you the ins-and-outs about Twitter.  I think they do a pretty good job explaining the basics on their help center.  There, you’ll find the “how’s” of Twitter, like how to post a tweet or how to follow others.

Instead, this post contains some of my basic recommendations about how you might first want to get involved in Twitter a professional manner.  As I have said before, getting involved means starting small.  I think you will quickly see why many people have stayed involved.

  1. Consider starting with a private account. If you are still treading the water about getting involved for one reason or another, remember that you can have a private account.  No one can follow you unless you let them.  This means that your posts (or “tweets”) will be hidden from view of everyone except those whom you permit. I suggest using this feature really only as a place to test the waters to get the hang of writing in 140 characters and see if Twitter is for you. Be aware that with a private account, your voice will not be heard.  You are not really contributing your expertise; you can still listen to and follow anyone with a public account, but you limit your prospective audience.  You can always change from private to public once you’ve established your account, so this is often a good way to test the platform, but I do not recommend maintaining a private account unless you want to remain silent or limited in your interactions.
  2. Start following some accounts. This is the key to finding out the power of Twitter.  The majority of the time, you will end up listening (i.e., reading) more than speaking (i.e., posting). Let me spend a few extra moments answering: Who should I follow and how do I find them?
    • Specialty societies and journals: By now almost all major societies and journals have Twitter accounts.  These are generally staffed by communications professionals who often tweet recent articles or news items you might find of interest.  You can try doing a search on Twitter for their accounts, or go to the societies’/journals’ home pages and find the place on the website where you can “Follow Them”.  If you are logged in to Twitter, you can usually just click that link or icon, and you will be taken right to their Twitter account where you can choose to follow them.  Once you’re there, check out who they are following.  Chances are, they follow accounts or people with whom you may have some common professional interests.
    • Let Twitter suggest some accounts: This tool might not give you the most interactive accounts, but at least you can continue to explore accounts that you may be interested in.
    • Search for accounts with similar interests: Do you have a particular area of interest? Maybe a disease or subspecialty? Do a search on Twitter to find people to see what people are saying about your area of interest.
  3. Listen to what others are saying: Are you surprised I said this before I talked about what to tweet? For everyday folk (and by everyday folk, I mean those of use who aren’t “follower millionaires”), Twitter is often more about listening than anything else.  By listening, you will get the feel of how people tweet, what people tweet, the format of a tweet, etc.  Believe it or not, listening to the voices might lead you to the next step.
  4. Decide what to tweet:  This is probably the most common question I get asked about Twitter. There are lots of people on Twitter saying many, many things all the time, but Twitter is not just about tweeting what you are just about to eat at the local diner.  Being on Twitter in a professional manner means you are starting to define your own digital footprint and your voice. Did you read a tweet that you liked? Retweet it.  That is one easy way to tweet, but that doesn’t create any new content of your own.  Are you an expert in one particular area? Start tweeting about it.  I strongly recommend avoiding tweets relating to patients directly. Use common sense when creating original tweets; remember that patient privacy is paramount.  However, you might find it easier though to get started by another common type of tweet: find an article or a news item about an important health issue or topic in your field and tweet it (or comment on it).  Any webpage can easily be tweeted nowadays with one of a number of tools that will shorten the web address to easily fit into the 140 characters of a tweet, like Tiny or bitly. Once you’ve shortened the link, you can import that into any tweet you’d like.  For an example, see the Twitter stream of Dr. Orlowski (@Myeloma_Doc), who tweets virtually exclusively about multiple myeloma.
  5. Find a hashtag: OK, now we’re starting to get to “Twitter 102 for Docs”. But if you’ve come this far and you’re ready to explore a bit, you might want to head over to symplur.com’s Healthcare Hashtag Project to see what they’ve created.  Let me give you an example.  In the tweet below, “#GERD” acts as a tag for the tweet.  You can search for tweets by including the hashtag to increase the likelihood you’ll find something directly related to your topic of interest.

How to get started on Twitter: A primer for doctors

Well, I hope these hints help you get started navigating your way through Twitter as a medical professional.

Ryan Madanick is a gastroenterologist who blogs at Gut Check.

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  • http://twitter.com/PintoLauraM Laura M Pinto

    Thank you Dr. Madanick, for your post. Your information helps demystify Twitter for physicians and other clinicians..particularly concur with the part about the value of “listening” on Twitter.

  • http://twitter.com/WorldHouseMD WorldHouseMD

    A big help for those who ask for help getting started!  

  • http://twitter.com/IAmPhilSharp Phil Sharp

    Awesome description of how to get started with Twitter! I remember being very intimidated to get started, but I’ve found it to be a great community. By tweeting with people that have similar interests I’ve learned a lot and made some new friends.

  • Nrip Nihalani

    Great post on how to get started.. this and multiple articles like this seem to be having a very positive effect as not only are more physicians joining Twitter but there are more meaningful healthcare conversations on twitter as compared to a year ago..

  • http://twitter.com/GinsbergMD Daniel Ginsberg, MD

    I’ve used Twitter a bit but searching for hashtags was always a chore. Thanks for pointing out the Healthcare Hashtag Project.

  • http://www.thehappymd.com/ Dike Drummond MD

    Great article on how to get started Ryan. And as we read your suggestions, I can just hear hours and hours of time being invested in this “startup project”.

    My question is always “WHY”? What do you do on twitter that makes this a value add to your practice and your office day? For most busy doctors – remember 1/3 of them are suffering from burnout every office day worldwide regardless of specialty – I maintain social media is a complete waste of time and has no meaningful Return On Investment. I have guest blogged here on the subject http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2012/04/social-media-worth-doctors.html

    Why do you tweet and what do you see as your ROI? Thanks,

    Dike
    Dike Drummond MD
    http://www.thehappymd.com