Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Physicians and Twitter Reality Check


Some [here and here] are saying that physicians must have a presence on social media. I was thinking about this and decided to see what is going on with Twitter. Here are some numbers to ponder.

Twitter has 106 million users. Over 60% or 63 million are outside the US. Some 47% or 50M Twitter users are under the age of 35.

The population of the US is now about 312 million.

Let’s say you live in a city of 100,000 people and the same percentage of Twitter users in the country used Twitter in your area. [106M x 40% = 43M/312M = 14% or 14,000 people.] Now deduct the % under the age of 35 as they are unlikely to need a doctor. That gives you 14,000 x 53% [the % over age 35] which = 7420. You would have to assume that most of those 7420 people would not be following you on Twitter. Why? According to a report published in 2010, 60% of Twitter users follow fewer than 10 people. Assuming you are not being followed by that group, you now have 6420 x 40% or 2968. Since 74% of Twitter users have fewer than 10 followers, what is the likelihood that even a few of them would be following you? I suppose you could give your Twitter handle to all your patients. Do you really want to do that? What if a patient tweets something significant about a change in his symptoms and you don’t respond promptly or misinterpret what he said and give the wrong advice?

To look at it another way, over 92,000 people in your city will not even be potential viewers of your tweets.

If you are looking for a way to waste some time, get a few laughs, commiserate with like-minded physicians and occasionally learn something, Twitter might work for you. If you think of it as a way to market yourself or communicate with patients, I suspect you will be disappointed.

1 comment:

G. Pickett said...

It never occurred to me to use Twitter as a means of communicating with patients - and no, Twitter is not cut out for that *at all*. Nor do I feel the need to market myself; none of my referrals are going to come from Twitter.

Twitter is, or at least can be, an interesting newsfeed that allows for rapid distribution of info. I follow Neurosurgery, the JNS, CMAJ, CNS Chronicle, etc. on Twitter and often hear about articles there first. Various basic researchers have a strong presence on Twitter and I'm occasionally made aware of relevant bench studies that I almost certainly would not have come across otherwise because I don't have time to read all the basic science journals out there. Scientific discussions, medical questions, links to editorials on health care reform...there's a lot that scrolls by on Twitter. People who think it's all about what someone's having for lunch, or what celebrities are wearing, are not following the right accounts.

But I think the *most* important thing that will come out of physicians and surgeons being on Twitter is that Twitter is a chance to influence public opinion, and to educate the public at large about medical issues. Non-medical people follow me on Twitter: most of them won't read the link I tweeted regarding technical issues in aneurysm clipping, but they might read the one explaining why the "liberation technique" shouldn't be widely adopted at present, or the importance of discussing end of life wishes with your elderly parents. If I tweet about the recent measles outbreaks and importance of vaccination, I know there are "civilians" out there listening, parents who will pick that up and rebroadcast. That's the other big potential of Twitter: amplification. I have under 100 followers, but one person who frequently retweets me has close to 1000, so I get broadcast to them as well - and from there, who knows? It's how things go viral.

People often talk about the importance, and the difficulty, of communicating scientific and medical information to "the public" in language they can understand. Twitter is a public space, and people are listening, looking for content. It's not for everyone, but I think that having physicians engaged on Twitter has benefits far beyond simple marketing.

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