Connect and Build Your Online Presence: Tips for Using Social Media as an Oncology Trainee or Early-Career Professional

Mar 05, 2020

By Narjust Duma, MD

Are you on Twitter again? You should write a manuscript instead.”

Social media sounds like a waste of time.”

I do not know where to start with all these platforms.”

Those are the phrases I have heard and continue to hear regarding social media for medical trainees and early-career faculty. Before we start, this commentary will focus on social media in a professional setting. Most of us have had a personal Facebook profile since medical school (and for some of you, even before that). We are talking about your professional profile on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

Recent data suggest that 79% of online American adults use Facebook, and 24% use Twitter. Two in three Americans get at least some of their news through social media, making it a highly effective medium for patient education.1 Why are these numbers important? Because chances are many of your potential patients, collaborators, and leaders in the field are on social media. You can easily reach them through these platforms and build your online reputation.

How I Started Using Twitter for Professional Purposes

Before we talk about the risks, tricks, and tips of social media for medical trainees and early-career faculty, I want to share my personal story with you. I graduated from the Mayo Clinic fellowship in July 2019, but I started using Twitter in a professional settting in early 2018. The Mayo Clinic publishes a digital article series called “In the Halls of Hematology,” where my personal and professional story was featured in February 2018.2 I remember, after the marketing team suggested that I retweet the story, trying to log in into Twitter—it had been so long since I had last used the site that I had forgotten my password. It took me around 30 minutes to do my first retweet and around 1 hour to come up with my first tweet.

In the beginning, trying to use Twitter professionally was overwhelming. When I was younger, I had only used Twitter to follow my favorite childhood celebrities, like the Backstreet Boys and a fan page for Selena Quintanilla (“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”—I know you know the song), and now I did not know who to follow and what to like or retweet. I was intimidated by the fact that you cannot edit your tweets and by the 140-character limit at the time (now the limit is 280 characters).

But I gave it a shot and found my way. I first followed leaders in the field like Dr. Jack West (@JackWestMD) and Dr. Michael A. Thompson (@mtmdphd). I slowly learned from them, and later I found my own voice. I discovered that Twitter was a great platform to feature the voices of Latinas in medicine, share my research, keep up with the literature, and develop collaborations and new friendships. As I was discovering social media in the professional setting, my personal identity was also evolving, and this can be easily seen in my posts and comments over the past 2 years.

Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, has been a great resource for me. My recent publication in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, about unconscious bias in speaker introductions, is the result of Twitter interactions with Dr. Miriam A. Knoll, Dr. Ariela L. Marshall, Dr. Martina Murphy, Dr. Stephanie L. Graff, Dr. Shikha Jain, and many more.3 I would venture to say that the project would not exist if I hadn’t connected with them over social media, and now our findings are resulting in practice changes at the largest oncology meeting in the world: ahead of the 2020 ASCO Annual Meeting, ASCO provided guidance to meeting faculty to ensure that all speakers are introduced and addressed in a professional manner, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or seniority.

Tips for Taking Advantage of Social Media as a Medical Professional

While there are risks to using social media in a professional way, those risks can be managed.

  • Risk: Violating HIPAA regulations. Solution: Patient privacy should always be a priority. Even if no identifiable information is shared, the patient’s consent should be obtained when posting a clinical case.
  • Risk: Time management. Social media can consume fellow and early-career faculty time if not used in moderation. Solution: Tools like Tweet Deck can help you organize your posts, engage, and schedule tweets for a later date or time.
  • Risk: Blurred boundaries between professional and personal identities can be an issue, particularly when a personal social media account is also used for professional purposes. Solution: Have two different accounts, a personal account for friends and family and a professional account for public use. Or limit all your posts to the professional setting.
  • Risk: Online harassment. I sadly experienced this myself, and everyone who uses social media publicly is at risk for this—particularly if you are commenting on a controversial topic. Solution: Ignore, block, and move on!
  • Risk: The internet is forever. Even if a post is deleted, it will leave an online trail. Solution: Be mindful of your posts, and the people you tag or @. My recommendation: If your abuelita (grandmother) would approve the post, you can go ahead and make it public (but this also depends on how radical your grandmother is!).

Once you’ve navigated the risks and applied solutions to get started effectively, here are some tricks and tips for using social media:

  1. Go and try it! Social media is reshaping cancer care; if you do not like it, you can always close your account and move on. I could write pages of tips and recommendations but this is the one that really matters.
  2. Follow organizations and journals that fit your interests and goals. To get started, try following @NEJM, @ASCO, @ASCO_pubs, and @ASH_hematology (and many more). Also, follow people who may have different points of view than yours; this will help you to avoid the “bubble effect” (or “echo chamber”) when everyone agrees with your posts and beliefs. Go and see what is out there.
  3. Participate in Twitter chats. These are conversations that happen in real time about a specific subject, and they give you the opportunity to interact with leaders in the field and patients. Disease-specific chats exist, most of which have a pre-set date and time—breast cancer (@BCSMChat) and lung cancer (@LCSMchat) are two well-established Twitter chats.
  4. Use the recommended oncology taxonomy.4 These pre-determined hashtags allow you to decrease the signal-to-noise ratio and curate some of the information around a specific topic.
  5. Utilize social media to disseminate your and your classmates’/colleagues’ research. Social media is a great platform to share your publications, posters, and presentations. Pictures of your poster and information about the date and time of your presentation can increase the influx of people by your poster.
  6. Respond to comments if appropriate. Don’t just post content and forget about it. The beauty of social media is that it offers bidirectional communication to its users. Engage!
  7. Follow nonmedical interests. Following your favorite soccer player or singer can provide you with some distraction from your daily work environment. (Come on! You still know all the lyrics to that Backstreet Boys song!)
  8. Funding! Funding! Funding! I have discovered many funding opportunities via social media. Following organizations like the National Institutes of Health (@NIH and @NIHFunding), ASCO (@ASCO and @ConquerCancerFd), and other disease-specific foundations can keep you up to date about funding opportunities.
  9. Meet your social media network face to face. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since I started using social media is participating in “Tweetups,” real-life meetings with people I have connected with through social media. In a unique sense, you feel like you know them even if you haven’t meet them in person. If you have really connected with someone on social media because you love (or hate) similar things, try to meet them, at a Tweetup or just for a cup of coffee, at a conference or meeting.

Social media gives you the opportunity to share your voice, listen, and learn from others. Like anything in life, caution is always recommended, but in my personal experience utilizing social media as a medical trainee and as an early-career professional has been a satisfactory experience that has helped me share my research findings, grow relationships with collaborators, and make a dream come true with the creation of the #LatinasinMedicine (@LatinasinMed) community.

Dr. Duma is an assistant professor and thoracic oncologist at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center. She is a co-founder of the #LatinasinMedicine online community, and is a leader for diversity and inclusion and an advocate for gender equity and balance in medicine. Follow her on Twitter at @NarjustDumaMD.


  1. Greenwood S, Perrin A, Duggan M. Social Media Update 2016. Pew Research Center. Nov 11, 2016.
  2. Mayo Clinical Hematology Staff. In the Halls of Hematology: Meet Dr. Duma. Mayo Clinic. Feb 19, 2018.
  3. Duma N, Durani U, Woods CB, et al. J Clin Oncol. 2019;37:3538-45.
  4. Katz MS, Anderson PF, Thompson MA, et al. JCO Clin Cancer Inform. 2019;3:1-10.
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