Albert Camus didn’t tweet … but Dr. Eric Topol (@EricTopol) does

Twitter will never produce great literature … but it has become an invaluable tool in keeping the world better informed and educated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was one of the conclusions that could be drawn from an intriguing discussion recently that brought together two of America’s best know physician authors – Dr. Abraham Verghese (@cuttingforstone) and Dr. Eric Topol (@erictopol).

Sponsored by the Bellevue Literary Review (BLR) and Medscape and hosted by BLR Chief Editor Dr. Danielle Ofri, the discussion on YouTube was titled “Covid Writing Goes Viral: How Literary & Social Media Writing Became a Lifeline during the Pandemic.”

The discussion actually split into two distinct threads – one steeped in literature and works such as Albert Camus’ The Plague (which I re-read in the bathtub over several sessions last summer) that dealt with great writing about pandemics – the other discussing the value social media and especially Twitter has brought to helping people deal with the pandemic.

The latter focused predominately on Dr. Topol and his work on Twitter. As editor-in-chief of Medscape, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, and successful author of several books on new trends in medicine, Topol has been one of the most credible U.S. physician voices on Twitter since the pandemic began.

I first heard Dr. Topol live in an address to the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) meeting in New Orleans in 2013 when he effectively stated “I’m on Twitter and you should be to.” In the year of the pandemic, Dr. Topol has doubled-down on his commitment to the platform and with more than 400,000 followers he has a large audience.

“Back in late February or March (2020), I made a conscious decision that I was going to get deep into this,” Dr. Topol said, adding that he wanted to serve as navigational guide for those in the scientific or medical community.

“I started to double or triple the number of posts I would do in a day and that’s been maintained for the year and sort of took over my life.” Dr.Topol added that he has also come to appreciate the educational value of social media in linking him with other experts around the globe and across disciplines.

“Twitter has introduced me to scientists I am not sure I would have ever known but they have emerged on Twitter as reliable sources of information.”

Dr. Verghese acknowledged the importance of what Dr. Topol was doing in noting the sources of information he had traditionally used to keep track of events were insufficient to keep him informed about the fast-moving events of pandemic.

“The sources that I might go to were already old by the time I saw them compared to Twitter.” Dr. Verghese said his views on Twitter shifted from seeing it as “cute and fluffy” to an essential lifeline in keeping informed.”

However, he also sounded a cautionary note but talking about the need to filter all of the information coming through on Twitter so as to only deal with credible information.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a basis for many people to tell their own narratives and raise awareness within medicine of the important roles played by others in the health care system, Dr. Topol acknowledged Twitter was not the best place to find these stories.

He talked about the inability of Twitter to reflect nuances concerning ambiguity or vulnerability in tweets.

“There’s no storytelling on Twitter or any social media.”

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