I learn from patients who share their stories on Twitter

I recently tweeted asking about favorite patients, physicians, and students on Twitter and was met with a plethora of shocked tweets at my inclusion of patients as potential Twitter interests.

Perhaps other medical friends interpreted this as being similar to meeting people in clinic and asking for their Twitter handle (which is not something I do) or maybe people really think it’s wrong to follow patients on Twitter, I don’t know. However, I do know y’all should be aware of why following people who tweet about their medical problems is beneficial to me as a future physician.

I don’t follow all that many people on Twitter – I find it overwhelming to keep up with too many people. Dr. Vartabedian at 33 Charts expressed my sentiments on this perfectly in a recent post, “How I Avoid Filter Failure on Twitter.

So why, with my limited “following” numbers, do I preferentially follow people who tweet about their experiences as patients?

How often in medicine do we forget that on the other side of that chart and chief complaint is a person?

What if we are forced to understand that a person’s ailments and the way their physician treats them often directly affects their entire life?

I’ve mentioned before how incredibly eye-opening it has been for me to follow people in the infertility community. I’m currently on my OB/GYN sub-internship and am keenly aware of how heart-breaking infertility, high-risk pregnancy, and pregnancy loss can be for my patients, purely because I’ve been exposed to some of these women’s stories online.

@EndoJourney is struggling through this right now and her story is one of many that makes me so exquisitely cognizant that the worries of pregnancy (and the heartbreak and fear of pregnancy loss) do not end when a patient leaves our office. Some of these women (often along with their spouses and families) are forced to worry 24 hours a day that a very wanted child may never be in their arms.

Medical problems permeate lives. When we, as healthcare providers, forget that our actions, our words, our demeanor truly affects the well-being of our patients we easily lose compassion and gain complacency.

So, yes, I follow patients on Twitter. Not my patients, but patients who share their stories. I follow patients who explain how their doctors have affected their mental and physical health – how their physicians have failed them or fought for them and how it made them feel.

I follow patients to understand, to avoid complacency, to maintain compassion.

I learn from these people on a curve much different than that of traditional medical training, because through them I learn to be acutely aware that my actions – both positive and negative – are not quickly forgotten.

I am sharply conscious that an ounce of honest compassion can significantly improve someone’s mental well-being, and that a moment of carelessness can destroy it.

And that is not something that can be learned from a textbook.

Danielle Jones is a medical student who blogs at Mind on Medicine.

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