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How Hematologists-in-Training Can Leverage Social Media in the COVID-19 Era

As hematologists-in-training spending long hours in patient care and research during the pandemic, many of us have turned to social media to stay connected with family and friends in these socially-distant times. With all of our academic conferences going remote this year, it is clear that social media also has an important role in our professional lives, providing researchers and clinicians with a virtual space to continue our critical work improving the lives of people with blood disorders.

Some of you may not have a social media presence yet, and others may have created their first accounts during the pandemic but are daunted by writing their first posts. As an avid Twitter user myself since 2011, I would like to share a few simple approaches for trainees to engage with social media, using guiding principles and lessons learned from fellow hematologists.

Supplement Your Education

The easiest way to get started is to pick a social media platform that is already actively used by physicians and has a low barrier to entry. Twitter is the best place to start, with large communities of academic physicians and trainees of every specialty, though Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and even TikTok have active physician users as well.

Twitter is an excellent platform to supplement your education as a hematologist-in-training, with educators regularly posting teaching lessons from the clinics, the wards, and the bench that can be accessed by busy learners at any time. Hashtags make it easy for trainees to find content that is tailored to their clinical and research interests. On Twitter, #medtwitter is a hashtag for more general physician-oriented medical content, while #hemetwitter, #onctwitter, and #pathtwitter are communities specifically for hematology, oncology, and pathology, respectively.

On Twitter, hematologists have already created their own disease-level communities, which can be a powerful tool for trainees who are looking for in-depth knowledge about a specific blood disorder. The #mpnsn community, which stands for “myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) on social media,” was founded by a multinational group of academic hematologists to share knowledge about MPNs with both researchers and patients. Hashtags are particularly useful for rare diseases, curating information from diverse sources and bringing patients and physicians together to collaborate, such as the #bpdcn hashtag for blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm (BPDCN). On the #bpdcn hashtag, there are educational posts for patients, showing pictures of BPDCN-related skin lesions to encourage dermatology appointments, as well as physician-authored posts from a recent virtual medical conference about a novel cell target to treat BPDCN.

In the COVID era, social media has become an integral educational tool among physicians as our pathophysiologic understanding of SARS-CoV-2 rapidly evolves and novel sequelae from COVID-19 infection are described. A popular teaching format on Twitter is to post a series of Tweets in a single thread called a “tweetorial,” a portmanteau of “Tweet” and “tutorial,” which serves as a mini-lecture on a single topic. Several hematologists have published tweetorials on how coagulopathy presents and why lymphopenia is commonly seen in patients with COVID-19 infection, which serve as “living” lectures to which new information can be added as medical knowledge matures. Social media can also be used for virtual journal clubs, such as @HOjournalclub, which is specifically for hematology/oncology trainees, and for online-based case discussions, permitting that all patient information is appropriately omitted and patient consent has been obtained.

Participate in Advocacy

With both patients and physicians using social media, trainees may be nervous about sharing their opinions and thoughts in the public sphere. However, access to the public may be important for those interested in advocacy work, for researchers seeking access to broader patient populations, or whose work is informed by patient experiences. For example, there are many Facebook groups where patients can learn more about their disease and discuss symptoms and treatments with other patients, often called “e-patients” who are equipped, enabled, empowered, and engaged in their own care. Interacting with these groups can be a formative part of training for budding hematologists, to learn about the lived experiences of our patients with blood disorders and how we can better manage their symptoms and quality of life. Further, clinicians can provide patients with informational videos or educational materials on these social media channels, enabling them to advocate for new treatments or clinical trials, as described in this vignette of a patient with multiple myeloma who learned from a Facebook group about how positron emission tomography imaging could change his treatment.

Social media also provides an opportunity for physicians to advocate on behalf of their patients. Through the hashtag #SickleCellAwarenessMonth, hematologists advocate for appropriate pain control during a pain crisis, contact lawmakers to encourage sickle cell screening legislation, or even discourage fellow clinicians from using the negative term “sicklers.” Social media can also provide an avenue for self-advocacy. The #WomenInMedicine hashtag uplifts the voices of women in medicine, while the @HemOncWomenDocs and @WomenInLymphoma groups offer communities for women hematologists.

If you are nervous about how to best present yourself on social media, or how to professionally engage in advocacy activities, a good approach is to ask for the advice of other clinicians who have been successful. After all, thousands of clinicians interact on social media every day, and you can follow in their footsteps to create your own niche. If you have questions, it is always prudent to review best practices, including the ASCO Social Media 101 series, and to discuss any concerns with your program director or your institutional communications department.

Virtual Conferences and Research Collaboration

Many academic physicians have recognized the importance of social media in scholarship. Dr. Jason Frank stated, “Within the next decade, you won’t be able to be a successful scholar without having some activity on social media.” There are numerous opportunities for trainees to be involved in the discussion of research, especially in the COVID era of virtual conferences.

The ASH annual meeting is a prime example of the power of social media to enhance trainee participation in the discussion and dissemination of research. At the 2019 ASH Annual Meeting, the hashtag #ASH19 received hundreds of thousands of tweets, with attendees tweeting during conference sessions — a practice called “live-tweeting” and one of my personal favorite activities during conferences — so that attendees in other sessions or colleagues around the world who were unable to attend could learn about new data and late-breaking abstracts in real-time. Not only does this practice enable appraisal of the literature, a particularly important aspect of professional development for trainees, but it also creates a personal database of curated knowledge to which you can refer in the future.

In preparation for the upcoming virtual 2020 ASH Annual Meeting, mentioning the #ASH20 hashtag now in social media posts will help build connections in advance of the meeting, which can help trainees get feedback on their research and find new mentors. Further, social media can be utilized to recruit patients to clinical trials and find national and international co-collaborators, which can be particularly helpful for difficult-to-enroll trials or for rare disease types. It is estimated that approximately 25 percent of patients with cancer use the Internet to find clinical trials, and with less than 5 percent of these patients being enrolled on clinical trials, social media can be harnessed to meet patients where they are.

Finally, there is evidence that sharing publications on social media can increase viewership and may also increase overall citations. A professional social media presence can augment your research contributions to the field of hematology at-large by enabling further dissemination of your science, and by helping you to foster new collaborative relationships.

Find Catharsis and Social Support

Finally, just as we use social media to stay connected with our friends and family, we can use the same channels to find social support for our professional challenges, especially in this socially isolating time of COVID-19. Approximately 45 percent of oncologists are estimated to be experiencing burnout; however, social media has been shown to reduce burnout and improve career satisfaction in women oncologists and may also help trainees who feel disconnected from their peers.

There have been several social media initiatives that have arisen during the pandemic to provide trainees with virtual platforms to share their stories and build communities for catharsis, including the #HumansofResidency visual narrative medicine project on Instagram and the @MedHumChat medical humanities Twitter chat.

Of course, social media can contribute to work-life imbalances if used in excess, so hematologist Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju encourages budding social media users to find small pockets of time, such as waiting in line for coffee, to tweet about a new article.

Hematology is unique among medical specialties, as the pace of research grows faster by the year and the volume of information can be overwhelming, especially for trainees. Social media is poised to help cancer clinicians stay abreast of new developments in their fields, permitting rapid networking and collaboration on a global scale. Although the sheer size of social media can be intimidating, finding a “social media mentor” who can help to create a professional account and connect you with key thought leaders in your research or clinical niche is an excellent first step. Just a few minutes a day can accelerate your career and expose you to brand-new research, as well as help you create new professional connections in these uncertain times. Yes, social media is not perfect, but it is a powerful platform that can improve the quality of care for patients with blood disorders and enhance our professional careers.