6 Insights into Physicians Who Tweet

January 3, 2017

You don't have to be a TV doctor to effectively reach a potential audience on Twitter, says new research on doctors using the social media platform.

You don't have to be a famed TV doctor like Dr. Drew to understand that tweets can be habit-forming. American medical professionals have begun to  employ social media platforms such as Twitter to engage with their fellow practitioners, patients, and healthcare consumers.

An Augustana University student research team in 2016 that tracked more than 3.38 million tweets drawn from carefully culled English-speaking physicians, examining how, how often, with whom, and how long physicians have utilized social media engagement practices to communicate with communities from 2006 through 2015.

While healthcare systems acknowledge social media is a powerful creator of brand trust and awareness, this study supports the fact that individual physicians are beginning to embrace Twitter to exchange information with colleagues and spread public health messages, especially to younger consumers. Here are a few of the research highlights:

1. Social media has assumed a larger role in how consumers manage their health. Patients benefit from physicians' use of social media and other internet-based communication technologies through increased access to care and enhanced perception of quality. It is clearly a relationship builder as well as an influencer in health practices.

2. Some specialties rely on social media more often than others. Pediatricians, chiropractors, dentists and optometrists use Twitter most often to reach specific audiences. Most doctors choose to tweet in the afternoon hours. However, physicians enjoy most engagement with followers if they tweet early in the morning or late at night. Engagement is higher during work breaks, such as noon, and on weekends. Dermatologists, orthodontists, and surgeons vary significantly from the overall pattern of tweeting and engagement. Dermatologists tweet most from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and achieve most engagement after 6 p.m., likely with parents. Orthodontists tweet from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and receive a significant amount of engagement during the day, also likely with patients. The least engagement between orthodontists and their followers occurs overnight. Surgeons routinely tweet from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with most engagement from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.

3. Come up with your own newsworthy material or share what other thought leaders post. Nearly 60 percent of physicians tweeted original content, while 43 percent retweeted. #Meded (medical education), which began in 2011, was the most commonly used hashtag (9,600 tweets), referring to a Thursday evening tweetchat discussion of medical education issues. The second most common hashtag (6,000), #fmrevolution, refers to family medicine Revolution or the mission of increasing awareness and respect for family medicine. Others included #FF (Family First), #hpm (a tweetchat about hospice and palliative medicine), #FOAMed (free open access medical information), and #hcsm (healthcare communications and social media).

4. You don't have to be famous to use social media. The top 10 users of Twitter include world-renowned health experts. Dr. Drew, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an American neurosurgeon best known as chief medical correspondent for CNN, and Dr. Jennifer Arnold, co-star of The Little Couple and certified pediatric and neonatal physician, are in the top 10. Fame aside, physicians who regularly use Twitter are more successful at building their practices, maintaining their links to colleagues, and sharing results of their research outside of conferences.

5. It doesn't matter how old you or your patients are. Students used biometric analysis to estimate the age and gender of users from profile pictures. While the software results are not always reliable, analysis showed 81 percent of physician tweeters were female and 21 percent male. Active Twitter users were under 30, and median age was 45. The oldest estimated age of one physician using Twitter was 79.  There was a spike in physician usage between ages 20 and 30, consistent use throughout the late 30s and 40s, and a spike between 50 and 60. This indicates that all generations in the workplace are using Twitter.

6. Use the device that is handiest. Most doctors tweet directly from their iPhones, followed by Twitter's website, an Android phone, Facebook and Hootsuite, a scheduling platform that supports a carefully timed social media posting plan.

By employing Twitter as an engagement tool, physicians build practices, better understand patient experiences, gain organizational leadership opportunities due to enhanced visibility, refine communication skills, and connect with others who share common interests. These findings may encourage more health systems to support physician social media efforts as community engagement strategies and certainly support the time and effort required to adopt social media strategies.

Jaciel Keltgen has a Ph.D. in political science, with a specialty in healthcare administration. She is a former journalist and currently teaches marketing, including healthcare and sport marketing, to undergraduate and graduate students at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD. Her research interests include generational behavior in the workplace, particularly job satisfaction in the healthcare setting.