Jeff Rowe, Editor, Future Care

Jeff Rowe is the editor of Future Care and a veteran healthcare journalist and blogger who has reported extensively on initiatives to improve the healthcare system at the local, regional and national level.

Twitter study explores role of social media in disseminating medical research

February 10, 2017 AT 4:25 PM

Let’s take a look at what you might call one of the real frontiers of health information exchange: emergency physicians (EP) on Twitter.

Some might consider this a rather random, almost frivolous, corner of the HIE landscape to focus on, what with all the debates about how best to improve intra-institutional HIE that directly impacts current patients.

But in a recent study out of the University of Washington, researchers reviewed the rapidly expanding community of EP who have taken to Twitter to share observations and the latest research related to emergency medicine. 

In explaining their decision, the researchers observed, “In 2009 there were 672 emergency physicians (EP) on Twitter, and in January 2016 there were 2,234. According to one survey, more than a quarter of emergency medicine (EM) faculty use Twitter.”

Despite the social medium’s popularity, the researchers wrote, Twitter is still widely considered “untested” as a repository of serious information.  Nonetheless, they noted, “dissemination of information on Twitter can be rapid and viral, and is heavily influenced by important opinion leaders. Ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders and then to the rest of a community. Opinion leaders have a wide and loyal audience, have the power to influence the decisions of others, and disproportionately impact the spread and credibility of information . . . As such, they have the potential to influence the conversation and the content significantly more than their less influential counterparts.”

In many ways, this study is a preliminary work, designed to identify and compile a list of the most influential EPs on Twitter, which “will help us better understand the intricate relationships of EPs on Twitter and lay the groundwork for future scientific inquiry.”

As for the results, of the 2,000+ plus EPs currently active on Twitter, the UW researchers dubbed 61 of them Twitter Influencers (TI). “Rigorous analyses of the 61 TIs will move forward our understanding of the way Twitter is used for content, conversation, and professional development,” they wrote. “For example, in-depth content analysis of the tweets of the 61 TIs would give insight into the EM subjects with the most weight on Twitter.  . . . Understanding the balance of content on Twitter may help EM practitioners and educators make informed decisions. Finally, and most importantly from a research perspective, analyzing the veracity of the content disseminated by the TIs would help further shine the light of evidence-based medicine on EM social media.”

There’s no shortage of pros and cons to the exploding role of social media across society. But as that debate isn’t likely to be settled any time soon, studies like this one can help stakeholders get a sense of how, if not to tame the social media frontier, at least to make the best use of it as it inevitably keeps expanding.