Why neurologists should harness hashtag power of social media


By Julie Lambert

27 May 2021

Twitter has become an invaluable  – but still under-used – tool for neurologists to keep up with clinical advances and peer networking, according to a group of international authors.

The first international study to examine the role of the Twitterverse in neurology finds that since 2006 it has rapidly grown as a platform for advocacy, education and collaboration by neurologists.

The paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is the work of an international team of 13 researchers, including Professor Allan Kermode of the University of Western Australia.

As Twitter enables users to interact freely with leaders in academic research and clinical practice, it is especially useful for engaging in narrow research areas by following specific profiles and hashtags and reading associated threads, it says.

“This effect is particularly apparent in rare diseases, where following key handles and hashtags ensures that researchers, physicians, and patients can establish connections,” the authors observe.

As examples, it notes #PMSF (Phelan McDermid Syndrome Foundation), @thetinman_org (help and awareness for stiff-person syndrome), @yaya4HL (Yaya Foundation for 4H leukodystrophy, 4HL), and @fragilexsyndrom.

The ensuing “social media cross talk” is often helpful in building clinical registries and biorepositories and may facilitate higher-quality clinical and translational research, the paper finds.

Within specialties, Twitter offers focused spaces for discussion of specific topics or diseases; e.g., @Microbleeds for microbleed research and @ScienceofPD for Parkinson disease.  The platform is also used to disseminate collaborative subspecialty education, such as neuropathology and neuroradiology, to broader audiences.

In wider applications, Twitter is being used to promote clinical trials, enhancing recruitment and inclusivity via links to enrolment websites. For example:

  • The Emergency Laparotomy and Frailty (ELF) study achieved a target enrolment of 500 participants by utilising a Twitter handle (@ELFStudy) and eye-catching logos on its Twitter profile.
  • The AVERT DOSE trial (@AVERTDOSEtrial) posts regular updates on work in evaluating rehabilitation after stroke via their Twitter profile, ensuring sustained visibility.
  • Novartis is recruiting participants with advanced malignancies for US clinical trials, and its Twitter profile (@NovartisOncCT) shares this link for potential participants to join: http://bit.ly/2LhfJIk! #ClinicalTrialsSM..

As is well known, Twitter has become a favoured way of amplifying conference discussions beyond the event, reaching people unable to attend and helping participants forge new connections. This, the study says, can be “a convenient way of light-touch networking” long after a conference has ended.

In the United States, Twitter is also increasingly used to advertise neurology jobs and residency programs. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of at least 216% (from n=24 to n=76) has been reported in the number of neurology residency accounts on Twitter.

Leading neurology journals have amassed thousands of Twitter followers, attesting to the value of real-time access to new research and discussion. By this measure, Nature Neuroscience is the top-ranked journal with an estimated 86,400 followers, followed by Green Journal with 44,900.

Conversely, someone interested in clinical genetics can follow #GeneTherapy, browse through tweets, and obtain links to pertinent websites. Users can even keep up to date at the level of the individual gene; the inherited neuropathy gene PMP22 has its own hashtag: #PMP22.

Twitter appears to have opened up new territory, however, with the advent of the “tweetorial” – a series of educational tweets posted in quick succession or in a long, extended tweet, tagged with a keyword or hashtag with the tweets numbered by the convention 1/n.

“Developed in late 2017 by Mike Thompson and Vinay Prasad, tweetorials have seen explosive growth and have recently been accepted by the New England Journal of Medicine as a type of publication under the handle @MedTweetorials,” the study authors said.

Twitter also has the capacity to help patients understand complex medical conditions through sharing information and access to support groups, they added.

“Patients may interact with others who have the same disease, share experiences, and discuss treatment facilities and trials, advances in disease management, prevention, and potential sources of financial support, all of which enhance patient care. Twitter also provides a forum for all parties vested in health care to interact,” they concluded.

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