Tracking cancer conversations online: The Social Oncology Project 2013

As some 30,000 doctors, patient advocates, healthcare companies and journalists descended on Chicago for ASCO, there was a great deal of anticipation about what new research would be presented, and what kind of conversation and controversy might arise as a result.

That anticipation, it turns out, requires some patience, filtering, and a really big net.  In fact, the amount of clinical data available in oncology has increased exponentially over the last several years –the number of cancer-related journal articles posted to PubMed has increased 349% since 1999.  It should be no surprise that the number of cancer-related conversations has exploded in similar fashion. As those cancer-specific conversations continue to grow, it’s important to take a closer look at the physicians who are driving them. That desire to understand physicians’ online activity led to the publication of the MDigitalLife Social Oncology Project 2013.

This analysis, which tracked more than 16 million cancer-related conversations, illuminated a number of important things.  We know, for example, that even in an age in which we have more access to more sophisticated clinical data than ever before, the biggest drivers of online cancer conversations are awareness campaigns (e.g., Breast Cancer Awareness Month) and celebrity stories. To illustrate that latter point: Conversation about Leukemia didn’t budge with the amazing string of new drug approvals last year, but they did increase 1,000% when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano announced that he had been diagnosed).

Another important learning was that, increasingly, there isn’t just one cancer conversation – there are distinct and recognizable conversations happening now about dozens of different cancer varieties – each with its own participants, preferred channels, media coverage, and physician influencers.  As we looked at physicians who were engaging in cancer conversations, we were pleased to see that not only is their number increasing, but also that their conversations are becoming increasingly more robust and sophisticated.

Using the MDigitalLife database of online physicians, we’ve been able to isolate, for the first time at scale, physicians’ cancer-related conversations as a subset of the whole. It’s a relatively simple matter to analyze topical trends on various cancer types and the doctors who are most active in discussing them. But what’s more interesting (and, we believe, valuable) is to know which physicians are discussed most actively by their physician peers.

As an example, Dr. Jennifer Gunter (@drjengunter) was only the 9th most active author of tweets about gynecological cancers – but she is the clear number one in terms of the physicians who are most mentioned by her peers in association with gynecological cancer discussions. Wendy Sue Swanson (@SeattleMamaDoc) is only the 19th most active physician in the same conversations, but is the 2nd-most mentioned.

And while it would be a mistake to accept the number of peer-mentions as a 1×1 proxy for influence, when physicians cite and engage with each other online, it is a strong indicator that the mentioned physician is either a) consistently engaged in creating and sharing strong, credible content online, and/or b) exceptionally well networked with a peer group that has formed around a specific topic area.

To connect with Dr. Gunter, Dr. Swanson and the other physicians who are most-mentioned in conversations about gynecological cancers, simply hover over each image in the attached Image Capsule to link to the physicians’ twitter account, blog and other available channels. Separate infographics will be posted this week covering breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer and lung cancer at

Greg Matthews is a group director, WCG (a W2O Group Company).  WCG is an independent strategic communications firm providing integrated solutions built upon clear, data-and-analytics-driven insights.

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