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Is Twitter an Essential Tool for Infectious Diseases Healthcare Professionals?

About four years ago, a colleague encouraged me to utilize the social networking platform Twitter as a way to get real-time information and news updates pertinent to a health-care professional. I have been convincing myself that I didn’t need to use such a tool to stay up-to-date with my clinical knowledge. I felt I was doing just fine staying current with my email subscriptions to various medical journals and health-system organization newsletters. Who has time to learn a new program and how do you handle what seems like an overwhelming amount of information being tweeted every day?

After years of putting off exploring how social networking services benefit healthcare professionals, I read the article by Goff et al.1 claiming that Twitter has emerged as a valuable tool for infectious diseases clinicians. Twitter is a free social networking service that was founded in 2006. Twitter allows users to write and read online posts (known as “tweets”) that are limited to 140 characters. Users are able to follow other healthcare professionals with similar interests, organizations, and medical journals.

The purpose of the article was to describe why Twitter is an important tool, how and when an infectious diseases clinician should use Twitter, the impact it has in disseminating infectious diseases news and its educational value. The article made a very compelling argument toward its benefit and I decided it was time to explore the addition of this service to my toolbox.

The ability to disseminate infectious diseases news is one of the reasons Twitter is emerging as a valuable tool for infectious diseases clinicians. There have been several examples of new and emerging infectious diseases in the past few years where acquiring information in real time is critical. The benefit of a program that disseminates information instantly across the world is very powerful.

The use of Twitter for providing up-to-date news and information proved useful in the 2009 H1N1 and the 2011 Legionella pneumophila outbreak in Los Angeles.1 During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the world was connecting on social media to discuss and learn about this disease in real time on Twitter. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used social media to disseminate accurate information related to the Ebola disease. The CDC used Twitter specifically to conduct question-and-answer-type online discussions called “tweet chats” that were seen as a successful way to provide and disseminate timely and quality education and updates during an infectious disease outbreak.2

Twitter is also seen as one of the reasons for a change in the way people interact and learn. The days of using textbooks to answer infectious disease questions is being replaced by online medical databases and apps. Twitter is a tool that has the ability to provide bite-sized on-demand learning that resonates with trainees who have grown up with mobile technology.

Healthcare clinicians with limited time to read journal articles find Twitter keeps them up-to-date on what is going on in the field worldwide allowing for a quick review of peer-reviewed information. In addition, Twitter accessibility on mobile devices allows for clinicians to retrieve information and engage in continuing medical education with the touch of a finger. 1 The potential for the use of newer social media tools to enhance learning among healthcare clinicians is also being explored. The incorporation of these tools may have a positive impact on learner outcomes by promote active learning and offering better opportunities to foster collaborative learning and engagement.3

Twitter may provide value for news dissemination and educational opportunities, but what are the pitfalls of using social media for healthcare information? The violation of patient confidentiality is one major concern with the use of Twitter by healthcare professionals. The sharing of unique stories must avoid sharing of information that could identify a patient. Another concern is the credibility of information on Twitter and the ability for misinformation to be disseminated to a large audience. It is important for clinicians to follow reputable individuals and take care against spreading questionable information.1

After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to create a Twitter account to follow other healthcare clinicians, organizations and medical journals with an infectious disease focus. In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed with information, I am taking the advice of Goff et al. 1 to develop a routine of reading and tweeting for 5 to 10 minutes each morning. For those of you interested in getting started on Twitter, I would recommend utilizing the information by Madanick4 to help get you started.

For those clinicians currently utilizing Twitter, is there any additional advice you would give to a new user? What has been your experience in using Twitter as a news source and/or educational tool? Has anyone else been reluctant that recently joined the Twitter community?

  1. Goff DA, Kullar R, Newland JG. Review of Twitter for infectious diseases clinicians: useful or a waste of time? Clin Infect Dis. 2015 May 15; 60(10):1533-40.
  2. Lee TM. CDC, Ebola & Tweet chats: was this venue a success. Available at: Accessed 14 January 2016.
  3. Cheston CC, Flickinger TE, Chisolm MS. Social media use in medical education: a systematic review. Acad Medc 2013; 88: 893-901
  4. Madanick R. How to get started on Twitter: a primer for doctors. Available at: Accessed 15 January 2016.

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