Social Media a Powerful Tool for Communicating and Networking in Oncology

Chicago, IL—Social media is not only for teenagers, and this platform has expanded more than its user base. In the past decade, social media has evolved to become a powerful tool of communication for professionals, and this is especially true in the healthcare world. At the 2017 ASCO annual meeting practice management sessions, Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, Associate Professor, Division of Hematology and Oncology, University of Florida, Gainesville, shared examples of how social media can be used for professional development and networking while also describing potential barriers to its use.

“Social media allows for rapid and real-time information sharing and receiving, and it’s user-generated, so you get to create your own content,” said Dr Markham. “What’s more, networking through social media allows us to make connections with others who have similar interests, foster collaboration, and receive—and give—support for professional and personal growth.”

Barriers and Risks of Social Media

As Dr Markham reported, “not having enough time” is the most often cited barrier to using social media. Finding the time to tweet or post on Instagram or Facebook may feel impractical to many oncologists, she said, whereas others worry that spending time on social media or learning how to use social media effectively could decrease productivity in the clinic or in one’s research.

Privacy is another frequently cited concern for patients and providers. Even those physicians who enjoy engaging in social media have reservations about the glut of personal information that is available to the public and its possible impact on their practice, said Dr Markham, adding that the permanence of posts may also give pause.

“You can delete a tweet, but it’s never truly gone,” she observed. “A common expression is that posts shared on social media are written in pen, not pencil.”

Healthcare organizations are also wary of the potential harms from unprofessional or unethical behavior on social media, and physicians themselves have expressed concern about inadvertently sharing misinformation or sharing something unprofessional, which could pose a risk to their reputation. Finally, “trolls” and bullies have dominated recent discourse regarding the dangers of social media.

“If you’re sharing your own perspective on a topic and if its controversial in the least, then you’ll experience trolls and bullies,” said Dr Markham. “As you use social media, you’ll have to consider how to handle each situation.”

Value of Social Media

Despite these risks, social media has real value. A survey of Canadian clinical oncologists and oncologists in training showed that 55% of respondents use social media for networking, whereas using it “to share research” and “leadership development” were cited as goals by 17% and 13% of users, respectively.1

“This highlights how social media can get you engaged with your community, your profession, and your interests and can lead to opportunities that can help your career,” said Dr Markham, who emphasized that networking with other healthcare professionals is one of the main benefits of participation.

In the days before social media, networking opportunities were limited by physical location—to a physician’s own communities and medical center—but the opportunities now are global, she explained. With Twitter, for example, providers can meet and interact with anyone across different time zones and countries.

“One of the easiest ways to connect with people with similar professional or research interests is by using cancer-specific hashtags,” said Dr Markham. “Oncologists can participate in discussions and network with colleagues, researchers, and patient advocates in virtual communities centered around common cancer interests.”

Tweeting during meetings is another valuable tool for networking. By including the #ASCO17 hashtag, for example, tweets are searchable later and followers can connect with others who are interested in cancer care. It is also useful for sharing research highlights from the meeting, Dr Markham observed. In addition, Twitter now complements the traditional journal club, which no longer needs to take place exclusively in the classroom. Each month, the moderators of International Urology Journal Club (#urojc) host a 48-hour discussion on Twitter that is focused on recently published journal articles. Twitter chats are regularly held by several groups, organized around a hashtag, and led by a moderator.

“The Breast Cancer Social Media (#BCSM) chat began in 2011 as a conversation on Twitter and has grown into a robust virtual community, and the #GYNCSM monthly tweet chat centers around discussions about gynecologic cancers,” said Dr Markham. “They’re a great way to get to know other physicians and advocates or other leaders in the community who are really interested in these topics.”

Finally, social media also offers the potential for mentoring and peer support. Miriam Knoll, MD, Medical Director of Radiation Oncology, Hackensack University Medical Center Mountainside Hospital, Montclair, NJ, who is active on Twitter, wrote a blog post2 on ASCO Connection about Physician Moms Group, a closed group on Facebook.

“Where else could a physician share a moment of frustration or achievement with 50,000 colleagues, and receive immediate feedback including 2000 likes and hundreds of supportive comments?” asked Dr Knoll.


  1. Adilman R, Rajmohan Y, Brooks E, et al. Social media use among physicians and trainees: results of a national medical oncology physician survey. J Oncol Pract. 2016;12:79-80, e52-e60.
  2. Knoll M. The case for connectivity. ASCO Connection blog. February 29, 2016. Accessed July 5, 2017.

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