In tweets related to support, patients and their loved ones frequently shared their stories and asked for emotional or spiritual reassurance, the researchers found. This finding suggests that “Twitter is a unique form of communication for kidney cancer because it provides a platform for peer support where individuals such as patients, patient advocates, caregivers, and providers can offer, obtain, and exchange important resources to meet their emotional and psychological needs,” the authors wrote.

The finding that treatment was one of most commonly discussed issues implies that Twitter serves as a tool to share information and new research findings related to kidney cancer treatment, the authors argued. Similarly, previous research has suggested that Twitter allows users to stay up to date with advances in the medical field.3

Naveen Pemmaraju, MD (@doctorpemm), an associate professor in the department of leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who was not involved in that kidney cancer study, has observed similar trends among his patients who use Twitter. “Patients have expressed to me that they enjoy following us online because they are able to see these papers and abstracts that they normally would not have access to,” Dr Pemmaraju said.

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The use of Twitter in other oncology contexts has undoubtedly been on the rise. For example, the number of people using Twitter during American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meetings increased 11-fold in recent years, suggested a study led by Dr Pemmaraju, which was published in the Journal of Oncology Practice.1

There has also been a 9-fold increase in the number of actual tweets sent during the meetings, according to the findings. In 2011, 1429 unique authors tweeted during the annual ASCO meeting, compared with 15,796 authors who tweeted at the 2016 annual ASCO meeting. Over the same time period, the number of tweets sent during the meetings increased from 7746 to 72,698, the researchers found. In another study, published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology, researchers concluded that the number of tweets sent at the American Society of Breast Surgeons Annual Meeting increased by 600% between 2013 and 2016.4

Dr Pemmaraju and his colleagues also concluded that the most commonly tweeted topics in oncology shifted to align with the topics that were being discussed in real time during the actual ASCO conference. “For example, melanoma was a hot topic 2 years in a row, and that was [also] the most commonly tweeted topic” during the meeting, Dr Pemmaraju said.

Wasif M. Saif, MD (@WasifSaifMD), deputy physician-in-chief and medical director at Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, New York, who was not involved in any of the Twitter studies, said that using Twitter during medical meetings prevents him from missing out on sessions that are being held simultaneously.

“My favorite part of such tweets is about the links to full abstracts on new cancer drugs or findings, while I am attending a different session in a different location … as you can imagine, many sessions are held simultaneously due to different aspects and diseases under oncology, and to accommodate thousands of attendees,” Dr Saif said. “This way, I don’t feel like I’m missing any part [of the meeting] and [it] offers me a ‘bookmark’ for reading during later hours.”

Interestingly, Twitter often provides opportunities for oncologists to participate in conversations about cancer even if they are not attending specific conferences in oncology. The aforementioned Annals of Surgical Oncology study found that “most of the tweets came from physicians who were not at the meeting and who were not even members of the organization,” said lead study author Deanna Attai, MD, FACS (@DrAttai), assistant clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Moreover, between 11% and 35% of the Twitter activity observed across the study came from patients, caregivers, and patient advocates. “Whether it is physicians or patients, [both groups] are still interested in the content,” Dr Attai said.

All in all, Twitter has become a key resource for oncology stakeholders. In fact, Dr Pemmaraju recalled what his “Twitter mentor” and study coauthor Mike Thompson (@mtmdphd), MD, PhD, medical director, early phase cancer research program, Aurora Health Care, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, once told him: Twitter “is the future of academic medicine.”

“It is not just a fad,” Dr Pemmaraju concluded.

References

  1. Pemmaraju N, Thompson MA, Mesa RA, Desai T. Analysis of the use and impact of Twitter during American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meetings from 2011 to 2016: focus on advanced metrics and user trends. J Oncol Pract. 2017;13(7):e623-e631.
  2. Sedrak MS, Salgia MM, Decat Bergerot C, et al. Examining public communication about kidney cancer on Twitter. JCO Clin Cancer Inform.2019;3:1-6.
  3. Markham MJ, Gentile D, Graham DL. Social media for networking, professional development, and patient engagement. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2017;37:782-787.
  4. Attai DJ, Radford DM, Cowher MS. Tweeting the meeting: Twitter use at The American Society of Breast Surgeons Annual Meeting 2013-2016. Ann Surg Oncol.2016;23(10):3418-3422.