Nearly one-fourth of physicians use social media on a daily basis

Nearly one-fourth of physicians use social media on a daily basis to scan or explore medical information, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.  They found that, whereas just 24% of physicians use social media to “scan or explore” on a daily basis for those reasons, that number jumps to 61% when measured on a weekly basis.

Physicians who use social media to “contribute,” rather than merely scan information, stood at 14% daily and 46% weekly.

According to Greg Mathews on Kevin MD.comMy colleagues and I have been following thousands of doctors on Twitter for the last few years … and have gotten more and more interested in finding out what we could learn from them if we were to try to automate some of the very difficult process of sourcing and analyzing their Twitter posts at a much larger scale.

To that end, we have created a database of nearly 1,400 U.S. doctors (to date) on Twitter and – this is critical — linked them to NPI (National Provider Identifier). To our knowledge, this is the only database linking doctors using the Twitter platform to an “official” data set. We’ve  captured over 400,000 tweets from those doctors over a 5-month period in 2012, allowing an unprecedented ability to scan for trending topics and relationships, broken out by specialty, gender and location.

  • The specialty mix is a near-perfect match with the overall US physician population; no specialty varied by more than 3% from between our data set and the country’s doctors as a whole.
  • Our geographic mix was also very close; 49 states indexed within 4% of the overall physician population in that state. Only California strayed outside that number; Californian physicians over-index by 7% in terms of their Twitter usage.

Having been satisfied that we had assembled a reasonable data set, we’ve spend the last two weeks poring through that data looking for insights and patterns. Here are a few of our top-line findings:

  • These are active users. They tweet over 2x per day on average.
  • Twitter is a part of their work-day. More than 50% of tweets are sent between 9am and 5pm (in the physician’s local time zone)
  • They have an audience. 2/3 have at least 150 followers (the median is 306)
  • They connect to each other. More than 1/3 of the doctors are followed by at least 20 other doctors in the database.

What’s more interesting, of course, is the substance of their tweets.  We examined a sample of tweets related to 3 therapeutic areas: diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer.  Perhaps not surprisingly, 83% of specialties mentioned diabetes in their tweets … though it’s interesting to note that pediatricians discussed it among the most frequently (behind only internal medicine and family medicine doctors).  I suppose that’s a sign of the times – childhood obesity and the earlier onset of diabetes is very much on the mind of the physicians who care for our kids.  It was also interesting to note that prostate cancer was as widely discussed as it was … 70% of specialties mentioned it in their tweets.  Much of the volume there was driven by this summer’s controversy about the validity of the PSA test as a means of lowering morbidity;  In fact, 43% of the tweets about prostate cancer between May and September were related to this specific issue.

What’s it all mean ?

(1) Physicians are embracing social media but they are proceeding cautiously.  The biggest areas of concern in research that I led was “privacy issues”.

(2) The online social media platforms for HCP’s is fragmented with new platforms appearing almost every week.  The platform that can provide physicians with the tools THEY need and provide them with a GREAT USER experience are going to win out.

(3) Social media targeted at HCP’s should not use the current business model of build it and hope they come; rather they should do in depth research with HCP’s to find out their needs and wants and build a network around them.

(4) There is a difference in the way healthcare professionals use social media by age.  Younger HCP’s tend to embrace new technology but some older HCP’s either don’t believe it can add real value or don’t have the time to truly understand it’s capabilities.

(5) With physicians becoming more wary of drug company research social media is a great way to connect physicians and share information between HCP’s.  With more and more doctors using iPads and smartphones this author believes it’s only a matter of time before some portal hits a home run by offering physicians what they want and how they want it.  The balancing act is going to come when and if they allow the drug industry to advertise or sponsor information.

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