Articles and Case Studies

Harnessing the Potential of Social Media

22 Mar 2016

by Dr Benjamin Veness

Social media image

Social media holds great potential for medical students and doctors, regardless of the degree to which we wish to engage in public debate.

According to the Medical Board’s social media policy:

Social media describes the online and mobile tools that people use to share opinions, information, experiences, images, and video or audio clips, and includes websites and applications used for social networking.


Social media can strengthen connections

None of our generation would remember Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership, let alone the circumstances that got him there, yet I clearly remember @MalcolmFraser12’s tweets. In an age of inattention, a former Liberal PM who left the party in protest of its changing values could easily have been a single day’s news story before fading into Wikipedia anecdotalism. Instead, Mr Fraser embraced social media as a tool to shape public sentiment and policy, sending more than 10,000 tweets and amassing a following of over 44,000 within two-and-a-half years of joining Twitter in August 2012.

One of Mr Fraser’s favourite topics was asylum seekers. He used the medium of Twitter to counter their vilification by politicians, a sympathy shared by many of us. From campaigning for the release of children from detention to calls for the repeal of penitentiary threats within the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth), medicos have been leveraging social media to increase awareness of the perniciousness of government policy, and to help fulfil our role as advocates for the sick, the poor and the disadvantaged.

Public activism, however, can struggle to find a comfortable position in our professional bed. Medicine threatens to be all-consuming in our training years. We tend to be risk-averse, and we soon learn it’s much harder to earn a good reputation than it is to develop a bad one. Social media’s role, for most, is constrained to a communication tool between friends. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the mainstays (and Tinder, maybe).

However, avoiding public forms of social media, particularly Twitter, due to a perception that it’s risky or time-consuming, is fast becoming a professional risk in itself. Just as social media can strengthen our connections to friends and family, so too can it support an emerging medical career.

You can benefit professionally

  • A public social media presence reflects directly on your professional reputation. Patients, colleagues, employers and the press can (and do) access what we say, share and “like” online. While this poses downside risks, it can also help us to build a positive reputation and to share both our work and our considered thoughts with a broader audience.
  • Likewise, both LinkedIn and Twitter allow you to follow leaders whose thoughts you’re interested in. Reading the tweets and re-tweets of @BillGates, @Atul_Gawande, @HelenClarkUNDP, @GillianTriggs and @SussanLey exposes me to their work and gives insight into their reading lists. It can do the same for prominent clinicians in your fields of interest.
  • Frequently, a public online presence yields new professional relationships. I’ve made great friends and colleagues across Australia and internationally, thanks to Twitter conversations. These typically develop from online to “real life” at conferences or alongside other travel.
  • Medical conferences use Twitter to facilitate networking and interaction, running live Twitter feeds on screens and encouraging face-to-face “Tweet-ups” during breaks.
  • Free and open access medical education (#FOAMed) was born of social media. One of my favourite teachers is Professor Chris Semsarian (@CSHeartResearch) who runs “ECGTweetorials” based on cases from his genetic heart disease clinic. For junior doctors, emergency physician James Edwards is building a bank of practical podcasts on his “On the Wards” blog –
  • Keeping up with new research is easier if you follow academic journals on Twitter and Facebook, e.g. @TheLancet, @bmj_latest and @NEJM. Letters to the editor are no longer the only way to engage with editorial staff: @theMJA frequently re-tweets doctors’ tweets, and The Lancet editor’s personal account (@richardhorton1) provides a fascinating and honest critique of global health politics every time he attends WHO and UN meetings.
  • Online journal clubs such as #urojc (urology) and #rheumjc (rheumatology) help doctors at all stages of training, and from anywhere in the world, to discuss significant new papers.
  • The Royal Colleges are on social media. During recent debates about sexual harassment in medicine, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons used Twitter to great effect, communicating well-considered statements in full and without reliance on the print media.

Your patients can benefit too

  • Patients increasingly use the internet in search of diagnoses, prognoses, and management recommendations. The increased presence of doctors on social media helps to crowd out and correct the effect of charlatans such as anti-vaccine shonks.
  • Innovations such as the “My GI Health” app seek to provide patients with novel support tools. They use the power of social media to connect patients with others with a similar disease, with the potential for moderation by treating teams and the tracking of data on symptoms to aid disease management.

What next?

To mitigate the risks of social media, be sure to read the Medical Board’s social media policy.1 You can also seek guidance from MDA National and refer to relevant articles in their Member publications.2,3 Having done so, jump in.

The work of Professor Simon Chapman, an esteemed public health researcher, has achieved supernormal reach because of his strong engagement with Twitter and Facebook. His advice sums it up: “Use social media. A lot!”

Dr Benjamin Veness (MDA National Member)
Resident Medical Officer, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW

Ben Veness was introduced to Twitter by a fellow student during medical school. Follow Ben on Twitter @venessb.

Follow MDA National on Twitter @MDANational


  1. Medical Board of Australia. Social Media Policy. Available at:
  2. Usback D, Chambers K. Social Media and Medicine: A Case of Medical MadnessDefence UpdateWinter 2015:6.
  3. Kruys E. Social Media in Modern MedicineDefence Update Autumn 2014:8.
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