Twitter launched in 2006 as a social networking site that limited each burst of expression, or tweet, to 140 characters. Perhaps its emphasis on brevity is what allowed this high-tech haiku to evolve into a popular tool for busy pediatricians to extend our reach beyond the clinic walls.
“Tweetiatricians” use this platform to disseminate information on new medical recommendations, promote children's health, counteract online misinformation (especially as it relates to vaccines) and connect with other pediatricians and advocates for children's welfare.
Initially, I was skeptical of joining Twitter, having avoided social media in all forms for years. I was concerned about the pitfalls of having a public presence online, having seen multiple examples of social media gaffes that came with a big cost to one’s privacy, dignity and even livelihood. The risk seemed particularly high in medicine where maintaining patient confidentiality is critical.
However, my institution, home to the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, encouraged us to embrace social media to promote the work we do, establish our role in the health care narrative and disseminate accurate information to the public. This shift from a risk-averse approach to one of opportunity has been spreading among other academic and clinical institutions over the last few years.
As pediatricians, we deal daily with the effects of widely disseminated medical myths about vaccinations and other issues. Parents frequently seek health information online where unverified, unscientific misinformation can flourish. A 2015 article from Wired (http://www.wired.com/2015/06/antivaxxers-influencing-legislation/) noted that over 63,000 of 250,000 anti-vaccination tweets using the hashtag #cdcwhistleblower came from just 10 accounts, proving that an intensely vocal minority can provide the false impression of a majority opinion.
Before starting your professional social media journey, I recommend checking to see if your institution has a policy on social media engagement. If it does, learn and follow these rules. If it doesn’t, talk with your institution’s public relations department to develop some basic guidelines that will allow you to engage effectively online without compromising your institution or patient confidentiality.
Your institution also may require you to add a disclaimer to your bio stating that your opinions do not reflect those of your organization. To this, I add the caveat that you always represent your organization through your actions and words. A disclaimer will not absolve you or your institution of legal or ethical breaches or inflammatory speech.
Begin by logging on to twitter.com and follow the directions to create your account. You also can download the free Twitter app onto your mobile device.
If you consider yourself technologically illiterate, find a colleague (residents are a great choice) to walk you through the brief process, or access Twitter Support at https://support.twitter.com/articles/215585. If you can navigate an electronic medical record, I have faith that you can do this.
Next, choose how you will present yourself publicly. The default Twitter settings will allow anyone to view your tweets, even if they are not Twitter users. You can change the setting so your tweets can be seen only by followers you approve. Keep in mind that even a “private” profile can become public since anyone can capture a screenshot and share it, even if you delete it later.
Then choose your handle, or Twitter name, which will start with “@” and a profile picture. Twitter may suggest a handle based on your email address. I advise choosing something different and short enough to easily identify yourself, perhaps including Dr or MD in your handle. Since tweets are character-limited, a long Twitter handle might make it harder for you to be included, or tagged, in other tweets without having to limit your message. The default Twitter profile photo is a white egg on a colored background. I recommend changing this to a photo that you feel represents you such as your official headshot, a less formal photo or a photo that represents an interest of yours.
Next, write your bio, which also is character-limited. Think of this as your first test to introduce yourself to a world that operates with a shortened attention span.
Now the fun begins. Start by getting familiar with the platform.
Based on keywords from your bio, Twitter may suggest people, organizations or news services to follow. Following someone means you will see all of their tweets on your information feed. Initially, this can seem overwhelming, but you can tailor this. Also, any account you follow or that follows you is publicly available information. I started following fewer than 20 accounts. Over time, you will hone your interests, perhaps periodically re-evaluating the accounts you follow to manage your experience more effectively and to avoid being inundated.
You also can decide which stories, ideas or random tidbits from others you want to share by retweeting. Even if you don’t create your own content, you can amplify the work of pediatricians who do. As I became more comfortable with Twitter, I would add my own take to these retweets, eventually learning how to link articles, photos and other media clips to create my own tweets.
You have an opportunity to lend your voice to AAP campaigns by using hashtags like #putkids1st, #tweetiatrician and joining scheduled tweetstorms like #measlestruth, #vaccineswork or #MedEd chats. Advocating for children’s health issues by tagging elected officials in your tweets also is a good way to make your voice heard.
After I set up my account, it remained dormant for months until the measles outbreak hit Disneyland. Since then, I’ve been tweeting nonstop. For me, having a Twitter account is like being registered to vote. Twitter allows me to turn frustration into meaningful action and to amplify not only my own voice, but those of my colleagues, and most importantly, the voices of the children we serve.
Dr. Ameenuddin is a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee.