Healthcare professionals on social media: Welcome to the digital revolution

Healthcare professionals are prolifically consuming and sharing health information on social media, providing a rich source of unbiased and unfiltered data.

We are in the midst of a digital healthcare revolution.

Healthcare professionals are prolifically consuming and sharing health information on social media, creating the biggest unfiltered and accessible focus group in the world. Every post to social media, every comment made, every photo uploaded, and every Like and Share is real-world data that tells a health story – essentially providing a rich source of unbiased and unfiltered data. With this vast volume of data, there is an opportunity to gain a real picture of the behaviours, opinions and practices of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, in regards to…well anything. 

Soon, we will no longer be as reliant on chasing down healthcare professionals in waiting rooms, corridors, scrub sinks, or interrupting clinics to capture a glimpse of their opinions. Instead, we will be turning to social media to augment our understanding of healthcare professionals. 

More and more healthcare professionals are using social media in a very public way, engaging in conversations with both peers and the broader community. They are using these platforms in a sophisticated and strategic way, aggregating their conversations with the strategic use of hashtags, e.g. the ‘healthcare social media’ hashtag (#hcsm) is used over 2,600 times per month on Twitter. Never before have we been privy to these professional conversations in such an open and public environment – which would typically occur for example face-to-face at conferences and meetings. Now, we have an opportunity to observe them and hear their voices.

A Tweet by @DrCorriel using the #hcsm hashtag

The 5 reasons why healthcare professionals use social media

Healthcare professionals use social media for a variety of reasons, including peer-to-peer learning and collaboration through to combating misinformation:

1. Connect with colleagues

Social media dissolves most geographical borders and enables networking and connecting with colleagues locally and globally, both within their field and in other related areas. This facilitates collaboration, peer-to-peer learning and oftentimes informal mentoring.

2. Access the latest information

Social media can act as an aggregator of information, making it a one-stop-shop for healthcare professionals to access and engage with the latest publications, professional practice guidelines, evidence from colleagues across the globe and upcoming educational opportunities (e.g. webinars). It also provides an opportunity to access information about clinical trials and to gain quick access to updates on the progress of a trial.

3. Participate in conference conversations

There is often a conversation occurring on social media in tandem with conferences, both physical and virtual. Attendants and non-attendants alike participate in these by using the official conference hashtag (e.g. #ASCO20) on social media, where discussions typically occur around new research presented at the conference. This behaviour has drastically changed how healthcare professionals interact and advance their education.

A Tweet by @oncologician using #ASCO20 hashtag
4. Share information and combat misinformation

Healthcare professionals are playing an ever-growing role in sharing evidence-based information with the public, including patients, to inform and combat misinformation.

5. Build their professional reputation and influence

Social media provides a platform for healthcare professionals to share evidence, their expertise and experience-based opinions. This allows them to nurture their reputation outside of their immediate professional circles and foster influence among peers and patients, funding bodies and healthcare organisations, as well as in areas of policy and regulation.

(Extended reading: Four reasons scientists should be on social media.)

The rise of the Digital Opinion Leader

The healthcare professional digital revolution has ushered in a new class of key opinion leaders (KOLs) – the digital opinion leader (DOL). Their influence online is just as powerful as that of a consumer brand influencer, with many healthcare DOLs having thousands of followers. When new information becomes available, they are often the first to communicate it to their audience and share their views. This degree of global reach across healthcare disciplines is exceptionally powerful. Here, they are a leader among their peers online, act as an authority in the space and are perceived as a trusted voice.

Dr Vyom Sharma, a Melbourne-based GP is one example. Dr Sharma has a following of 19,000 on Twitter (@dryvyom), including thousands of healthcare professionals around the world. When he tweets, people listen, and they engage and re-tweet him, amplifying his message even further through their own networks.

A Tweet from @dryvyom

These DOLs have an unprecedented power to influence. Much like how we seek to identify and understand KOLs, we have entered an age where the same amount of rigour is required in identifying and understanding DOLs.

The opportunity in social media for the healthcare industry

Extracting insight from social media data represents a new value creation opportunity for the life sciences and healthcare industry. Social media provides a rich vein of data, providing access to the unfiltered voices and opinions of healthcare professionals. It can shed light on the attitudes towards therapeutic areas, treatments and devices, the share of voice between healthcare professionals, patients and companies and the top influencers and DOLs. Healthcare professionals’ narratives and experiences volunteered in online spaces can help uncover deep insights with direct strategic applications for the healthcare industry, such as improving patient outcomes and experiences.

To learn more about how Opyl generates insights through social media and brings strategic value to healthcare, please contact info@opyl.ai

Written by Abbey Hargreaves and Dr Melissa Adamski