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Medicine and Social Media: Why Do I Tweet ?

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Even after the success of President Obama's campaign in using a variety of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Internet blogs, etc.) to communicate important messages to a large number of people, many believed that this was an aberrant phenomenon and, therefore, remained skeptical of the future of these communicating tools.


Earlier this month, the relatively unknown Swedish Pirates Party also used social media to capture 7% of the Swedish vote and two seats in the European Parliament. So, if politicians can deliver important campaign messages and win elections by using social media, should the medical community use the same tools to communicate with the general public? 

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Two years ago, I decided to experiment with social media. I have a strong interest in the treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare type of human cancer that affects approximately 8,600 patients per year in the United States. With a cure rate of 75%, it was very challenging to get pharmaceutical companies interested in developing new therapies for this small patient population. Furthermore, because of the limited pool of patients who are eligible for experimental therapy, these trials traditionally never enrolled patients in a timely manner.

My challenge was to convince industry sponsors of the unmet medical need opportunity, and to demonstrate that novel clinical trials in this small patient population can indeed enroll patients in a timely manner. To achieve these objectives, my laboratory collaborated with several biotech and pharmaceutical scientists to examine targeted agents in preclinical experiments. These collaborations resulted in designing several clinical trials for patients with relapsed Hodgkin's lymphoma. So we went from no clinical trials to four IRB-approved studies that ask important scientific and clinical questions. Now, I needed to spread the message to enroll patients. 

Initially, I started sending e-mails to colleagues to draw attention to these clinical trials with links to clinicaltrials.gov. However, the results didn't match the effort. So I had to use other methods of communications. I contacted the staffs of Oncolog and Conquest, two widely circulated M. D. Anderson publications, and explained to them my challenge. They both published stories and a few additional patients told me that they read these articles and that's why they came to M. D. Anderson.

But ultimately, the biggest impact came from a social media outlet: YouTube. The online version of Conquest included a YouTube video link that covered our clinical and translational efforts to improve the treatment outcome of patients with relapsed Hodgkin's lymphoma. In a few months, thousands have watched the video, which was associated with a surge in patient referrals to our clinic. Four years ago we used to enroll a maximum of 20 patients per year with relapsed Hodgkin's lymphoma on clinical trials. We now enroll approximately 80 patients per year, an unprecedented number for any single institution. Results from these trials are rapidly reported in national and international meetings, and all of a sudden a momentum was created that hope is on the horizon for these patients who were neglected for almost three decades. 

With this outcome in mind, I recently started to tweet. To my delight, M. D. Anderson realized the importance of these communication tools and established sites on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is relatively new, but can be a powerful communication tool with the general public. At the national level, doctors are starting to tweet more regularly. I tweet short phrases that include web links to blogs, clinical trials or scientific discoveries that may be important to the public. To me, this is not a tool to make new friends or to chat, but rather a one-way communication strategy to spread information from reliable sources directly to the public.

For those who don't know me well, I'm a very busy full professor, I see a lot patients in my clinic, chair several demanding clinical trials, have a funded laboratory focusing on translational research in lymphoma (including a recent lymphoma SPORE grant), serve as a peer reviewer for several scientific journals and grant agencies, frequently travel to participate and speak at national and international meetings, and I have to balance all of this with my own personal life. So, why do I use social media and tweet? The answer is above!


More Articles about Physicians and Twitter

Twitter for Tweetment (Oncology Times)

2 Comments

Dr. Younes, this is a great article! I wanted to let you know that we, too, are interested in leveraging social media for clinical trial recruitment.

We're on twitter: @healogica and my handle is @edshin. You can check out our website: www.healogica.com and our blog http://blog.healogica.com. Thanks!

Dr. Younes,

I have been following you on Twitter and can't thank you enough for taking the time to communicate excellent medical resources and healthcare information to the general public. I appreciate your efforts and MD Anderson for your dedication to medicine and your efforts to spread the word through social media.

Kathy Mackey
@mkmackey on Twitter


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