Twitter has become popular in the medical and scientific community for many of the same reasons it caught on with the general public. After an initial learning curve, it’s easy to use, perfect for smartphones, and remains the most efficient way to stay on top of an enormous amount of news and information. Physicians and scientists in particular need to engage with colleagues and peers around the world to keep up with the latest research and share ideas, and the more public, asymmetric nature of Twitter (you can follow anyone’s tweets and they don’t have to follow you back, or vice versa) is better suited for this than networks like Facebook or LinkedIn that usually require a higher degree of real-world social connection.
Since Twitter can be such a useful tool in a physician’s professional career, two residents at the University of Chicago Medicine decided to incorporate it into the residency training program as well. In 2013, Akhil Narang, MD, and Paul Bergl, MD, who were chief residents for UChicago Medicine’s internal medicine residency program at the time, started the @MedChiefs account (under the guidance of faculty mentor Vineet Arora, MD) to share educational tidbits, program information and research with residents. While creating a Twitter account itself isn’t exactly revolutionary, perhaps the scientific way they went about it is.
After their term as chief residents ended, Narang, who is now a cardiology fellow at UChicago, and Bergl, who has since moved on to the Medical College of Wisconsin, surveyed residents in the program about what they thought of the @MedChiefs account, how they used the information and how it enhanced their education. This summer they published a paper about their findings in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, showing that 69 percent of them agreed that it added value to their education, although the ways they received the information may be disheartening to Twitter fans.
“Everyone is connected to their cell phones. Everyone is always looking at their email or Facebook and taking pictures,” Narang said. “I think the natural extension is to use it in your training, and use it as part of your medical education at all levels, whether you’re a med student, fellow, or attending physician. I think it’s a very powerful tool for medical education.”
Narang and Bergl split the tweeting duties, sharing medical information from morning reports and lectures, news and events from the residency program itself, and more general medical research and breaking news of interest. Like many working environments, Narang said residents complained of email fatigue, and the Twitter account was a way for them to get this information by another means. The tweets from morning reports proved especially popular, he said, because not every resident could attend.
“They wouldn’t get this information at all before the Twitter account was live. They would absolutely miss out on that,” he said.
Despite the positive feedback on the project from residents, the majority of them didn’t use Twitter itself to get the information though. Narang and Bergl set up the account to cross-post tweets to the program’s Facebook page as well, and they included a widget showing the latest tweets on the program website. While 54 percent of the residents reported having a Twitter account, 59 percent of them read the tweets through Facebook or by looking at the website instead. And while 81 percent reported reading the tweets at least once a week, only 11 percent did so daily (a good sign that these were the only truly enthusiastic Twitter users in the group).
Still, Narang said he saw signs of a turning point. He noted that first-year interns were much more likely to use the Twitter app on their phones than 2nd or 3rd year residents at the time, and as people got the hang of it, they shifted from passively following to tweeting and interacting with each other. If they did it again, Narang said they would prod residents to sign up for Twitter during the orientation process and give them a few pointers to get started (a problem Twitter itself faces as it struggles to earn and keep active users at a fast enough clip to please its investors). Nevertheless, he believes Twitter can be an essential part of medical education.
“I think it has a huge role that probably hasn’t been recognized when it comes to medical education, live and in real time,” he said. “From a medical student’s perspective or a resident’s perspective, whether you’re studying for your boards, your exams, or just trying to learn a little more about your rotation, if you follow the right users on Twitter there’s a lot of medical information available, and you can stay current and stay up to date.”