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Social Media at #ASCO13 and Beyond: How Much, How Fast?

Jun 10, 2013

By Brian Reid

Note: Mr. Reid is a Director at W2O Group, which includes MDigitalLife and the Social Oncology Project referenced in this article. Mr. Reid currently specializes in media relations and strategy. Prior to working at W2O, he was a Bloomberg reporter, a Washington Post blogger, and a National Institutes of Health writer.

The numbers are in, and this year’s ASCO Annual Meeting was the largest in history in terms of tweets—more 22,000 of the 140-character missives sent over the last year included the hashtag #ASCO13. (A “hashtag” identifies keywords in a tweet, making it easier for users to follow a specific topic and connect with like-minded individuals.)

The 22,000-tweet deluge means that conversations are two-thirds higher than they were a year ago (which was, in turn, significantly higher than 2011). And it wasn’t just at ASCO’s Annual Meeting: the average monthly tweets about cancer in my firm’s MDigitalLife database of tweeting physicians doubled over the past year. The increasing use of Twitter and other social channels, such as ASCOconnection.org, raises an interesting question: how much more room is there for social discussion of oncology to grow?

That was one of the questions we were interested in answering when we began the Social Oncology Project, which tracks the type and volume of oncology-related online discussions and puts them into context. In addition to a quantitative report from the Annual Meeting, which looked at the numbers, we also spoke to a dozen different ASCO attendees earlier this month about the importance of digital communications in oncology. We wanted to know, qualitatively, where the biggest adopters of social technology believe we’re headed.

There was consensus: we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of engaged, online physicians. Michael Thompson, MD, PhD, a frequent ASCOconnection.org contributor and the Medical Director of Cancer Research at Aurora Health Care, said, “Throughout ASCO 13, I’ve seen people who were resistant to get on Twitter who are now engaging more with it.”

Dr. Thompson said some of the activity is below the surface: professionals who now see the utility of social tools such as Twitter, but aren’t yet using the technology. “Some people are just dipping their toes in, but it’s a positive trend,” he said.

Use of social tools is getting a boost, too, because oncologists are learning that targeted engagement can improve education efforts without becoming a time suck. Michael Fisch, MD, MPH, Chair of the Department of General Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said that tweetchats—30- or 60-minute weekly gatherings online around a specific hashtag—were powerful ways of engaging without overcommitting. “Oncologists just have to get into the space. It’s not as dreadful an ordeal as they may think,” he said.

Indeed, the debate isn’t over whether social tools will become ubiquitous, but how quickly that happens. Most of those we spoke with for the Social Oncology Project acknowledged that there would always be a set of professionals who would have a harder time adopting social media, either because of time constraints or the way they viewed their role.

“I don’t think we’re going to see all physicians engaging, and I don’t think we need that,” said Dr. Thompson.

For example, Naoto T. Ueno, MD, PhD, a prolific Tweeter and Section Chief of Translational Breast Cancer Research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, sees a sea change coming more quickly. From his point of view, it’s only a matter of time before use of social media is as common and natural as the use of the Internet. “I think it’s going to be a part of the medical school education. Given that we have a social obligation to the community, regardless of whether you do social media or not, you need to be ready for it,” he said.

For more perspective from ASCO members on social media, watch video interviews with Dr. Fisch and Dr. Thompson. Additional video interviews, including Dr. Ueno and ASCO Connection contributor Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, will be posted in the next week at the Social Oncology Project. 

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