Social media use is very common and can be an effective way for professionals to discuss information and interact with colleagues. Twitter (Twitter, Inc, San Francisco, California) is a social media network where posts, termed tweets, are limited to 140 characters. Professional use of Twitter is ideal for physicians interested in both networking and education and is optimally used to facilitate in-person networking. Live-tweeting (posting real-time reactions to events) at professional meetings is also a popular and highly successful use of Twitter. Physicians report patient privacy as the top concern preventing use of social media for professional reasons, and although generally social media use is safe, it is essential to understand how to protect patient confidentially. Other social media platforms with potential for professional use include Facebook (Facebook, Inc, Menlo Park, California), Instagram (Facebook, Inc), YouTube (YouTube, LLC, San Bruno, California), and Periscope (Twitter, Inc). With Twitter and other social media options, now is the time for pathologists to increase our visibility on social media and worldwide.
Most people are on social media, even doctors.1 However, doctors do not use social media in a professional capacity as much as other professionals.2,3 Pathologists have always been eager to interact with colleagues and patients and families; however, those encounters, which are so important for explaining pathologists' value to quality patient care, have until recently been limited to face-to-face encounters, such as local service club programs. No longer limited to face-to-face encounters, social media platforms offer a new way for modern physicians to both discover and discuss information. Twitter is a social media network and microblogging platform with more than 500 million users; it is one of the world's most-visited Web sites.4 Uniquely, Twitter posts (termed tweets) are limited to 140 characters. Anyone can read tweets, and registered users can post them. Tweets commonly include pictures, links, and “hashtags” (#), which are used to direct the reader to other, related posts. Hashtags frequently used by pathologists include #pathologists, #pathboards, and #FNAFriday.
Social media use in a professional capacity is not without its pitfalls, some of which are discussed below. When used appropriately, it has real, increasingly recognized benefits.3,5,6 Twitter is tailor-made for physicians interested in both networking and education. Doctors on Twitter are commonly followed by other doctors,7 providing a simple way for pathologists to interact with colleagues, both within pathology and throughout the other specialties. Twitter is also a great source for both disseminating and discovering information, including health care news, advances in the field, and advocacy. Many medical specialties have established online journal clubs, conducted primarily through Twitter. A summary of the journal club discussion is often posted in PubMed Commons, adding a useful resource for readers as well as feedback to the authors.8
To get involved, simply navigate to twitter.com, and sign up for a free account, then “follow” some fellow pathologists. For maximum impact, create a profile with not only your name and credentials but also a profile picture (termed avatar). Retweet the best and most interesting tweets. Use hashtags to find groups of tweets related to pathology, a specific disease, or organ system or an essentially unlimited number of other topics. Then, start posting your own tweets! Thompson et al9 provide an excellent introduction to Twitter for the “Busy Healthcare Provider.” Once established on Twitter, meet fellow Twitter users in person by attending a tweetup (an in-person meeting of Twitter users). Tweetups occur spontaneously at medical society meetings, such as the College of American Pathologists Annual Meeting, or are prearranged by groups of Twitter users.
Of course, the best use of online networking is for facilitating in-person networking. Twitter is not a replacement for face-to-face interactions; it is a supplement to them and an enabler of them. In fact, one of the advantages of social media is that it acts as an equalizer to allow users to interact with people they otherwise wouldn't, either because of geography or circumstance.3 It's also a less intimidating way to approach more-established names in a field and is a great way to build name recognition for an individual pathologist or for a network.
Another common and highly successful use of Twitter is live-tweeting, the posting of real-time reactions to events as they unfold. Professional meetings embraced this practice, including promoting the usage of conference-specific hashtags and the placement of Twitter usernames on name badges. Live-tweeters share high-yield points from attended sessions; nonattendees “virtually” follow along, retweeting and commenting. Twitter is also a great way to start informal conversations with colleagues about current professional issues and practice tips.
“Rules for live-tweeting” are extensively discussed elsewhere,10 but general rules of Twitter etiquette include (1) use the meeting-specific hashtag; (2) mention the presenter and name of the talk at the beginning; (3) attribute the presenter for each subsequent tweet, especially if using pictures or slides, and if the presenter is on Twitter too, tag them in the tweet using the “at” symbol (@), followed by their username; and (4) specify your opinions separately from those of the presenter. Tweets are also digitally archived on your personal Twitter home page (eg, twitter.com/yourusernamehereMD), which makes them easily available for future reference.
Patient privacy is the top concern of physicians, preventing them from using social media for professional reasons.2 Social media use can be very safe, but it is important to understand some potential pitfalls of using social media professionally. Helpful suggestions include the following:
Always maintain patient confidentiality and never include any protected health information. Histologic images are not, in and of themselves, patient identifiers; however, date of service, patient age, and patient sex are best left off the tweet. Consider creating amalgamations of cases to explain a disease process or a set of pathologically similar or related diseases.
Social media is public. As a rule of thumb, don't say anything online you wouldn't say in person to your mom, boss, or religious leader.
Consider digital permanence: despite its ephemeral illusion, what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet. Assume it will be there forever.
Other social media platforms also have potential for professional use and merit a brief discussion. Facebook is by far the most widely adopted of all the different types of social media. Facebook users create personal profiles to connect with friends and family by sharing and commenting on pictures, links, and status updates. Although Facebook use is typically personal rather than professional, it is a simple way to start professional interest groups and to facilitate discussions. Several pathology-specific Facebook groups exist, such as “Surgical (anatomic) Pathologists” and “Dermatopathology” with approximately 32,000 and 28,000 members, respectively. Instagram is a mobile-only, photo-sharing and video-sharing platform. It is easy to apply filters and upload photos taken with your mobile device. Some professional users upload photos via Instagram and then link them to their Twitter or Facebook pages. YouTube is a video-sharing Web site that allows users to view, upload, and comment on videos. Although most videos are for entertainment, some professional material is on YouTube, including conventional videos produced by the College of American Pathologists. Periscope is a relatively new service for mobile live video-streaming. As opposed to YouTube, Periscope only offers live videos that can be replayed for up to 24 hours. In our limited experience, Periscope offers potential for live-streaming talks and conferences, with an option to save the videos permanently if desired. These platforms offer even further opportunities for physicians to network and continue their education.
Social media is here to stay. Most of your family, friends, and colleagues are already using social media daily. Twitter is a unique platform that is excellent for pathologists and other physicians to use professionally, both as an educational resource and as a powerful networking tool. When you join Twitter, follow us @marenwhymd and @timallenmdjd, and we will follow you back! Twitter and other social media platforms are amazing tools for pathologists, and now is the time for pathologists to join in and expand our professional influence worldwide.
The authors have no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.