How doctors are using Twitter to enhance face to face networking

Authors: Tom Moberly 

Publication date:  09 Dec 2013

Doctors are increasingly using Twitter and other social media to support networking efforts at conferences and other events. Tom Moberly (@tommoberly) looks at what doctors are gaining from this move between online and face to face interactions

While Facebook and LinkedIn are being used to set up online groups of doctors with shared interests, Twitter has established itself as one of the primary ways in which doctors network online. In doing so, it has changed how doctors interact when they meet face to face, a phenomenon recognised by professional bodies as well as individual doctors.

Ben Riley (@DrBenRiley), curriculum director for the Royal College of General Practitioners, says the rising use of social media has already altered how doctors link up with one another. “It’s clear that social media is having a significant effect on how healthcare professionals communicate and form networks,” he says. “It’s important that we, as doctors, are at the forefront of this global change in communication.”

Riley also points out that doctors need to consider carefully how they use social media. Alongside Clare Gerada, then chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Riley was a coauthor of the college’s Social Media Highway Code, published in February 2013. The code was designed to help doctors think about how to balance professional responsibilities with the opportunities to use social media to improve communication and ultimately patient care. “Our rights as doctors come with responsibilities and these apply in the online world as well as in the consulting room,” Riley says.

Stephanie deGiorgio (@StephanieBlease), programme director for the general practitioner vocational training scheme for East Kent, says that, although she has been on Twitter for only a few months, once she signed up she “never looked back. I began by following a few other doctors, and over time built up a nice cohort of people whose views I was interested in hearing about,” she says. “I then began to realise the massive educational potential of this resource.” She now uses Twitter in her role as programme director for the local GP vocational training scheme. “I have started to use it for our training cohort and the feedback has been great,” she says.

Twitter is also a useful way of finding out who will be attending an upcoming event, says Anne Marie Cunningham (@amcunningham), clinical lecturer at Cardiff University’s Institute of Primary Care and Public Health. “I’ve been on Twitter for five years now and it’s now hard to imagine getting together with a group of people at a public event, such as a conference or a lecture, and not using Twitter to get to know more about the people who are there,” she says.

“When at events it’s a great idea to have a tweet-up, the chance for those using the conference hashtag to get together and put a face, body, and voice with the avatar,” she says. “The good news is that when you meet people you know from Twitter face to face there are usually few surprises—we can communicate a lot of our personality in 140 characters.”

Helen Atherton (@H_Atherton), research fellow at the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research, University of Oxford, says that Twitter can enable more fruitful collaboration than traditional networking. “I actually seem to end up with better connections with those I’ve followed on Twitter before meeting them in real life, rather than those I’ve followed purely because I’ve met them in real life,” she says. “I’m not sure why that would be, possibly because when you follow someone for a while you have more of a measure of who they are and what they do. Certainly my most fruitful collaborations have come that way.”

However, she also points out that strange situations can arise from connections originating in social media. “Just lately when I go to conferences and events I end up talking with Twitter contacts who recognise me from my Twitter picture,” she says. “This is often embarrassing if I don’t recognise them and have to spend a bit of time figuring out who they are. I now make sure I look at people’s Twitter profile pictures as well as their tweets.”

DeGiorgio says meeting Twitter connections at events has been a great experience. “The RCGP conference [Royal College of General Practitioners conference in Harrogate in October] really illustrated to me just how exciting it is to finally meet the people I have been chatting with almost daily,” she says. “It meant that I went to the conference feeling like I knew people already, but I hadn’t actually met any of them—I didn’t actually know what they really looked like.

“Sitting in a plenary session, it felt very strange knowing that somewhere in that room were loads of people whom I knew, but I didn’t know what they looked like. Eventually, two of us found each other, and then over the next few hours, the rest of us finally got to meet each other by tweeting where we were sitting in different rooms and turning around and waving.”

DeGiorgio says that meeting people in real life whom she had previously known only through Twitter was “very weird. You know them, but you don’t,” she says. “You instantly have loads to chat about, despite never having met previously. From meeting all of these lovely folks, I have realised that, if you like people and interact well on social media, you will probably like them in real life too.

“Through Twitter, I am now in touch with people I would never have met without social media,” she adds. “That is one of the reasons I love it—it is a great leveller.”

Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

Tom Moberly  editor, BMJ Careers London, UK

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