Social media and the cancer community

In pharmaphorum’s digital and social media themed month, Susi Burke of Cancer Intelligence discusses social media use within the oncology space.

Social Media is defined by the General Medical Council as ‘web-based applications that allow people to create and exchange content’.

Types of social media can include collaborative projects (wikipedia), blogs and micro blogs (twitter), content communities (youtube) and social networking sites (facebook) as well as virtual social and game worlds.

There have been plenty of discussions around social media for general medical practitioners but how are specialised medical communities, such as oncologists, using social media?

Reports vary about the numbers of engaged oncologists, but data from one of the largest studies in 2012 showed that a quarter used social media at least once a day to obtain medical information. Most hospitals and cancer associations such as ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) now have tips and guidelines for using social media. Social media is becoming a powerful resource for both the cancer doctor and patient community.

“Social media is becoming a powerful resource for both the cancer doctor and patient community.”

Oncology is a highly specialised, rapidly changing field. Keeping informed is a daily challenge for oncologists. Social media is fast, immediate, and can support oncologist’s access to the right information. Important changes in guidelines can be quickly signposted, new information disseminated and connections made with like-minded individuals.

Social media provides a new communication channel, enabled by Internet technology, for oncologists to share and exchange medical information at a pace that has never before been possible.

Social media can also play an important role in cancer education, both for the patient and the oncologist. These platforms can immediately relay new information, such as research presented at medical conferences, and encourage the exchange of ideas.

A study on the use of Twitter at the 2011 ASCO Annual Meeting concluded that tweets ‘often contained robust and clinically accessible information useful for both patients and clinicians’. It is obviously difficult to contextualise a 140 character tweet but the conversation can certainly begin through social media.

Crowdsourcing is another great example of professional education, whereby individuals or organisations use social media to harness the knowledge base, skills and enthusiasm of a community to collaboratively solve problems.

This relatively low cost activity is extremely effective and can create a high response rate. Young researchers are reporting that they can garner opinion cheaply and easily through social networking platforms. Medicine is becoming increasingly patient centric, access to thought and opinion direct from doctors is important for the education of patients and the general public. As a trained oncologist a post or tweet carries a certain amount of weight and validity, patients want to hear direct from the doctor. Patient education can be reinforced and disseminated through social media, for example the National Cancer Institutes’ Myeloma steering committee accrual working group now uses social media to educate patients and providers around clinical trial enrolment.

Cancer scientists are also starting to see the value of sharing information with potentially thousands of colleagues around the world through social media. Research found that the number of times an article is tweeted may increase the number of citations that an article will eventually receive. A 2011 study found that “Highly tweeted articles were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than less-tweeted articles”.

“Social media can also play an important role in cancer education, both for the patient and the oncologist.”

Alternative metrics, now available in 25% of Open Access journals, can instantly tell you the impact that your published article is having on the social world. These metrics track the impact of individual articles across the internet, using a wide variety of social media as well as other sources. Some argue that in the near future this will be more important than an impact factor – certainly more of an instant result for the authors.

Of course there are some downsides to social media, as with any communication medium. According to social media rules of engagement individual doctors and medical organisations must be careful not to blur the line between professional and private engagement. Privacy and security of patient information must be paramount, with images and other identifying information never posted. However, this does not mean that social media should be avoided by doctors.

Oncologists are also advised that when you post material online, you should be open about any conflict of interest and declare any financial or commercial interests in healthcare organisations or pharmaceutical and biomedical companies when posting online. In practice this is going to be tricky when the nature of social media is concise and avoids preamble.

At its core, social media and social networking is about sharing data and interaction; it makes it quick and easy for oncologists to find and connect with colleagues in the same field, regardless of geographic differences. Used wisely it can significantly enhance an academic or doctor’s reputation, have an effect on journal impact factors and provide access to a plethora of information.


About the author:

Susi is the CEO of Cancer Intelligence, a specialist medical publisher that focuses on oncology. She has worked on the award winning platform since launch 8 years ago. now has the largest online collection of oncology videos in the world and over 40,000 visitors a month.

Susi Burke,

Follow @ecancer on twitter

Closing thought: How is social media helping to break down barriers to scientific information?