Top 10 Tricks for Using Twitter in Medicine

Unsure of how to get started with Twitter as a physician? One expert shares his advice.


Michael Gibson
C. Michael Gibson, MD (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA), is an interventional cardiologist with
more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. A self-proclaimed “news junkie,” Gibson shares everything from articles related to medicine and cardiology to video interviews on—a website he founded in 1998—but he is especially passionate about building an online persona that helps patients and the healthcare community to connect. He talked with TCTMD’s Fellows Forum about his Top 10 Tricks for fellows interested in using social media, especially Twitter, to further their practices and careers.

 1. Decide on a strategy

Gibson says physicians have a responsibility to know what their patients are reading in the lay press so that they can better answer questions and deal with misinformation. Twitter is an excellent source for staying up-to-date, but beyond that physicians need to have a specific strategy for how they are going to network and share opinions. “Do you want to engage a small community [with] a well-defined topic of interest or do you want to engage a broad community with a wide range of interests?” he asks, adding that he tweets mostly about healthcare in general and not interventional cardiology in particular. But that doesn’t mean he limits himself solely to medical posts. Gibson also shares art and inspirational quotes to humanize his feed. Ultimately, he says, “follow your own internal interests” and share what you love and enjoy.

2. Create an interesting bio

Most social media sites have places for users to list a few key facts about themselves. According to Gibson, leaving this section blank is a big mistake. Potential followers “want to know there’s a human being at the other end of the computer,” he says. On top of showing where you work and linking to your webpage or LinkedIn profile, also include some personal details that will help others relate to you, Gibson advises. “People just don’t really resonate with people who are just doctors,” he says. “I sure hope you’re more than a doctor. It’s what makes you a human being and more accessible emotionally to people.” As for your profile picture, don’t use selfies. Rather, use a professional headshot that ties into your overall strategy—upload a smiley photo if you want to be approachable or go with something serious if you want to be viewed as more of an authority figure. Gibson also recommends linking to a disclaimer document (you can borrow from his here) or at least stating in some way that your tweets are your opinions and not medical advice.

3. Be credible

Debates can run rampant on social media, but physicians should post balanced opinions rather than rage or what could be construed as propaganda. Gibson recommends offering criticism when appropriate “regarding overly hyped conclusions from poorly conducted or confounded observational studies and junk science.” When commenting on controversial issues, mention both sides. Be sure put the findings of major studies into context for your audience, and let them know what their results mean to them as patients or family members, he adds. When tweeting about the benefits of a drug or device, provide equal coverage about potential safety concerns and follow a broad range of websites, journals, and experts in the field to gauge public opinion. Additionally, Gibson says to direct your followers to primary data rather than secondary reporting about study findings. Lastly, always read the articles you retweet to avoid disseminating false information.

4. Avoid politics and religion

Talking about politics and religion online will “likely alienate half of your audience right off the bat,” Gibson says. For physicians, it’s acceptable to use social media to discuss the Affordable Care Act, but otherwise leave the banter to political pundits and those who work in that realm. “That being said, do advocate for those issues that you hold strong feelings about,” he notes. “Be prepared for people to publicly disagree with you, have a thick skin, and avoid the temptation to respond to trolls and people who want to pick a fight.”

5. Be social (after all, it’s called social media)

Gibson follows back everyone who follows him, so long as the person has a profile picture and doesn’t seem to be “engaged in questionable activities.” He also suggests responding to everyone who tags or messages you in order to foster a conversation, so long as it doesn’t involve giving medical advice over the Internet. Another way to be social is by tagging other people—social media is a bit like going to a party, Gibson says, and “if you’re just standing there against the wall or in the corner expecting everyone to walk up to you, you’re not going to have a lot of conversations.” In the Twitter world, sometimes this means following someone first rather than waiting for them to follow you, he explains. On the flip side, Gibson cautions against being too personal by posting travel plans or details that could lead to identity theft.

6. Post images and photos

Rather than posting a long string of 140-character tweets, Gibson advises breaking up your timeline with images and photos that either you created or are retweeting. Images in general generate a much higher level of engagement than text alone, he says, and animated gifs are gold (so are dog pictures, but be prepared for strangers to come up to you in person to ask how Fido is). Gibson also suggests using images to convey long passages of text that will not fit in a tweet (ie, PowerPoint slides from a presentation or a screenshot of a study abstract). If posting a picture created by someone else, be sure to give credit.

7. Ask questions

A great way to start a conversation with someone face-to-face is by asking a question, so use this practice online as well. On Twitter, you can tag specific people you would like to answer your question or pose it to a more general audience. Gibson also likes using Twitter’s polling feature to engage your audience (especially for events like FDA panel votes), but he says this is only effective if you have at least several hundred followers. Timing is also important, he notes, so ask your questions when the majority of your followers are actively looking online in the morning before work, at lunch, and during the afternoon.

8. Be consistent

“Avoid being someone who only tweets at meetings or only tweets once every couple of weeks,” Gibson says, as you won’t build a following. When your audience knows what to expect of you, they tend to pay attention more and even actively seek out what you have to say. Another way to maintain consistency is to use a personal hashtag. Gibson uses #CMGsays when posting his inspirational quotes, and he said those garner a lot of interaction.

9. Promote yourself

Gibson curates a daily newsletter of the articles he links to and his Twitter content. He advises young practitioners to collect their patient’s email addresses, and—with their consent—send out weekly emails aggregating the news and Tweets from the week. This way, he says, you can “promote yourself” and build a following. While not everyone might want to go this route, he also suggests posting your Twitter feed on your website or LinkedIn profile.

10. Teach and learn

“Sadly, people of my generation are not keeping up,” Gibson says, so it’s up to younger physicians to teach themselves how to have an optimal social media presence. Until this skill is actively taught in training, he recommends trying new things, experimenting, and teaching your colleagues. One suggestion for young cardiologists is filming video interviews with experts—this could even be done with a smartphone—and posting them on Twitter. “The world is changing,” he says. “Use the power of social media to learn something new every day.”

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