Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant trying to provide the most accurate and timely information possible regarding COVID-19 and the pandemic. But it also meant facing an unprecedented number of personal insults and threats from bullies, bots, anti-vaxxers and others unhappy with what the science indicated.

If you are the president of the Canadian Medical Association (@CMA_Docs), a pediatrician and mother (@katharinesmart) it also meant taking a high profile stance on the value of vaccinations for children and so being called a child-abuser and other names as a result. It also meant being stalked.

Also at the end of 2021, two other prominent COVID-19 physician communicators (@NaheedDosani and @NathanStall) found themselves facing a bounty for urging responsible action in the face of the pandemic.

All of these attacks have resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of support from both other physicians and the rest of the Twitter community as well as support for legislative initiatives to protect doctors and other healthcare providers from abuse both on Twitter and other forms of social media and from those protesting in front of hospitals and other healthcare settings. This reinforced the perspective that Twitter can offer physicians strong supportive communities when they need them.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant sharing the good and bad moments in your life from births, marriages and deaths to personal mishaps such as broken ribs (get well soon @DrJenGunter), unfortunate incidents involving racial abuse when you and your partner try and occupy your rental property in Arizona (@DrMakokis) or just the sheer weight of exhaustion and frustration from trying to treat COVID-19 patients with often inadequate resourcing. It also meant making a personal decision about whether you wanted to

  •  present a well-rounded profile to the Twitter world as both a professional and as a person.
  •  maintain two separate Twitter accounts – one personal and one professional (as at least one regulatory College in Canada is now recommending and which virtually no physician that I know does)
  • confine yourself strictly to commenting on professional issues.

While some physicians found Twitter a particularly powerful medium for sharing their stories in broad strokes or as focused anecdotes others such as @EricTopol argued that effective story telling was not possible on social media given the limitations of the platforms. Some prominent and generally well-respected physicians learned the hard way in 2021 how just one Tweet and its 240 character limit can generate a huge Twitter storm of opposition and critical comment after being misinterpreted.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant advocating for your patients and especially populations such as the homeless who may not be as well-equipped to advocate for themselves. It means speaking out for Indigenous populations, racialized communities and those in long-term care homes who often bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic especially in the early stages of the pandemic. It also meant amplifying the voices of powerful patient advocates (such as @suerobinyvr) who were already present on Twitter.

For others it meant to continuing to speak out about uncomfortable issues for the profession such as the ongoing structured racism or sexism in medicine or to maintain unpopular perspectives not held by the majority of the profession.

For some physicians (@NaheedDosani @Sgabrie) it meant exploring a new element of Twitter (Twitter Spaces) to expand the scope and audience for this advocacy.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant using pictures, memes and inspirational quotes to try and maintain the morale and well-being of your colleagues.

It also meant sharing powerful professional experiences and beautiful pictures so a those posted by public health and preventive medicine resident @yipengGe from his elective rotation in Iqaluit.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant using the platform to communicate the already powerful messages you were already relaying so effectively in prominent newspapers and books (@nilikm and  @GillianHortonMD) or in radio broadcasts (@NightShiftMD). It also meant amplifying those messages by posting more personal reflections on what had been said elsewhere.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant continuing to foster productive conversations between the profession using the platform (the regular weekly tweetchat #healthxph in the Philippines continues to stand out in this regard) or to provide a consistently thoughful physician voice on more general platforms (thinking of you, @gailyentabeck and #hcldr). It also meant continuing to fill a valuable role in live tweeting from what proved to largely be virtual medical conferences in 2021 – although none will probably ever being able to match the productivity of @rheum_cat and the volume of her tweeting at #ACR21.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant continuing to explore the value of Twitter and other social media platforms in medicine and in advancing this knowledge in academic publications. As always @TchanMD from McMaster continues to excel in this regard from a Canadian perspective.

Being a doctor on Twitter in 2021 meant, for some, choosing not to be on Twitter any more and to either confine oneself to other social media platforms (especially LinkedIn) or avoid social media altogether because of the growing toxic nature of the platform. In fact I saw more physicians leave Twitter in 2021, some temporarily others for good, for this reason. It’s a view I can totally appreciate.

For those of you who choose to stay, I believe 2022 will show Twitter to be just as rewarding, frustrating and generally cantankerous as ever.

Lead illustration courtesy of The Cut

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