September 15, 2011

Medical students and social media: How to get involved


There is little doubt that most medical students have heard about the potential pitfalls of social media for students and physicians. Appropriately, many medical schools across the country have policies in place instructing medical students to be prudent in their social media use. With punishments up to and including expulsion for their actions on social media, I fear that the negative sentiment of these policies and warnings may be scaring medical students away from reaping the benefits of social media as a tool for medical communication and education. I think that more emphasis should be placed on encouraging medical students to use social media to become interested and involved in medical topics and discourse outside their home medical school.

Before medical school I worked as a cancer epidemiologist and often dealt with issues related to communication between scientists and the public about cancer risks.  At the suggestion of our communications director, I started using twitter in order to keep abreast of what was happening in the world of cancer.  I quickly found that this was a great way to filter through information from a number of sources:  medical journals, scientists, health care journalists, patients and advocates. This often made my job easier because I no longer had to search far and wide to keep up with current events related to my work; a lot of the newsworthy items would show up in my twitter feed.

I am thankful to have gained experience with social media before starting medical school, so I am still able to keep up with current medical events without much effort. I have been surprised at how few medical students use social media in the same way I do.  I figured that since I was a few years older than most of my colleagues, they would be a lot more involved in social media than me.  Then I realized that many of my classmates either did not have the desire to explore the use of social media for medicine or had been swayed from engaging in talking about medicine over social media for fear of impropriety or repercussions.

Based on my experience, I came up with some suggestions for medical students who want to try using social media to become interested and involved in an area of interest, a specialty, research, medical news, or discourse with medical students or physicians from other institutions.

1.     Use social media to develop your interests

Social media is an easy way to follow hot topics in a particular specialty or area of research.  If certain topics interest you in school, you should be able to find ways to gather more information or exciting news through social media.

2.     You don’t have much free time as a medical student, use it wisely.

Pay attention to things you’re interested in, don’t try to assimilate or comment on every bit of medical news.

Don’t feel the need to read every study posted by people you follow.  If you have time to read the abstract, great.  Save the full article in case you want to relay the study’s findings to someone else

If you do want to express your own ideas, social media provides a great forum to concisely voice your views.  Few students have time to maintain their own blog, and social media allows you to state your views in a simple fashion.

3.     Don’t try to be an expert

As medical students, we’re often asked about our opinions on medical topics by family and friends.  Remember that social media should always be treated as “public”, so be prudent.

4.     Use social media as a tool to advance your career.

In using social media, you may get the opportunity to network or interact with experts in a field of interest to you.  Take advantage of these opportunities if they present themselves.

Please feel free to add any of your own thoughts or add to the list in the comments.

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