How social media changed this oncologist’s life


asco-logo I have been drawn to social media (SM) both personally and professionally for many years now, but I still feel like an outlier in using it professionally. There have been ASCO education sessions on this topic, educational book articles, publications, and the like, but many of these take the approach that people don’t really understand SM and what it offers.

I fear that there is a different issue, that perhaps many health care professionals do think that they understand SM and that they have consciously decided not to use it professionally. Maybe they signed up for Twitter with their children’s help and found their feeds rapidly filled with tweets about Kim Kardashian, or they got Facebook friend requests from patients and quailed at the potential conflict of interest. Perhaps they mentioned it to colleagues or their chairperson and discovered that SM was dismissed or perhaps actively discouraged as something that had little benefit to a professional career. Instead of another lecture on how to sign up for SM, I thought I would share my experience, along with specific examples of how SM has directly led to professional benefits.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about SM. To put it simply, social media is media that is social; e.g., you can use it to interact with other people. Normal media is one direction only, to be received by you. You can yell at your television during the presidential debates, but Hillary, Bernie, Ted, and Donald can’t hear you. Social media allows you to interact with whoever is providing the information. If you disagree, please let me know in the comments below.

I first saw the potential of SM about 8 years ago, when I met Dr. Jack West (@JackWestMD), who was looking for oncologists to help provide content for his patient education website. I found that I could write blogs on lung cancer trials and get immediate feedback from patients and other doctors on my thoughts. More importantly, I could interact on the discussion boards with patients with lung cancer from all over the globe who wanted to understand their disease better, and I could help them make sense of a world turned upside down.

I was amazed at both the profound reach and the immediacy of it, and I was able to build somewhat of a professional reputation in lung cancer very early in my career by talking about issues in real time without being constrained by publication paywalls and schedules. I distinctly remember one reception at the ASCO Annual Meeting, where a senior investigator I barely knew walked up to me out of the blue and told me that she liked my take on her research, leading to a (small) role for me in a grant application she was submitting.

I have always been a news junkie, but joining Twitter in 2010 opened up a whole new dimension. At first I simply “followed” the few early-adopting oncology experts but didn’t think much of it. Over time, however, I realized that just about everything I was interested in was out there to be discovered in almost real time. I followed the beat reporters for my favorite sports teams and reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post, and was able to get (free) news around the clock while other people were waiting for the morning paper to learn anything new.

I gradually discovered people who were passionate about lung cancer who tweeted links to stories and publications, and I followed the people they followed to connect to even more people/patients/organizations in the field all over the world, magnifying the depth and breadth of my network until just about any event of note now is likely to be tweeted by someone shortly after it comes out. On Twitter, you are never more than a few degrees of separation from anything you might be interested in (including @KevinBacon).It does take time and effort to set up such a network, but once in place, it tends to grow organically.

How does Twitter help me professionally? I always read the tables of contents of my favorite journals, but now I can find the two or three truly influential papers in my field each month because someone points them out on Twitter. At professional meetings like the ASCO Annual Meeting, you can sort the wheat from the chaff by following experts, hearing about great research as it is presented and often with editorial comments. You can see fresh data from European or Asian meetings that you have no time to attend.

Also, if you ask questions or comment on something, your connections may just tweet back at you (social, remember?). You even have the potential to influence the conversation by lending your voice to the Twittersphere.

Just recently, a discussion I had on Twitter about immunotherapy led to an invitation to publish an editorial in a major journal. I have established connections with lung cancer patient advocates which resulted in an invitation to speak about social media and patient advocacy at an upcoming national meeting. And if it helps to get your chairperson’s support, I have had a number of patient referrals that came from people who engaged with me on Twitter.

In the past year, my latest SM endeavor has been blogging on ASCO Connection. A blog post is just an essay on a topic you feel strongly about, and ASCO Connection is nice enough to put the words up for colleagues to read. It is a wonderful feeling to have something to say and to be able to write it down and put it out there for others to see and comment on, and — given the size of ASCO’s membership — this platform reaches quite a few people.

So why get involved in SM as an oncology professional? Aside from the benefits of gathering information, it gets your name out there, especially early in your career. Many senior oncologists don’t think they need to be on SM, leaving a huge void that still is very open for junior people to fill. While professionals might not be on SM, patients, organizations, and traditional media are. When you are one of only a dozen experts in your field active on Twitter, you have a disproportionate influence. My involvement in GRACE led to numerous opportunities and connections, including an invitation to join ASCO’s Integrated Media and Technology Committee and opportunities to work with ASCO University online. In one interesting twist, a blog post I wrote on the stigma of tobacco and lung cancer led to an invitation to participate in a Congressional Briefing on Capitol Hill.

These are just a few examples from my own experience that I hope allow you to see some of the potential of SM to benefit your life and career. The full potential of oncology social media can’t be realized until a critical mass of professionals is actively participating, but many continue to resist. I strongly encourage you, especially junior professionals, to set up a Twitter account and start to follow some people you know. If you gave up on it in the past, try again, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel you aren’t getting what you want out of it. Try it, and I think you’ll see the potential just as I did.

Nathan A. Pennell is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared.

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