Many medical students have grown up on social media, but the hazards of using it unprofessionally are numerous and can be grave, including expulsion. Still, a recent study shows the use of Twitter in particular can produce positive educational and career development results. The authors identify the practices of medical school “superusers,” which demonstrate benefits in two main domains: access and voice. 

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The study, “A Digital Ethnography of Medical Students who Use Twitter for Professional Development,” was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Researchers examined 31 U.S. medical student “superusers” of Twitter—split nearly evenly among men and women and representing all regions of the U.S. and all years of medical school—over eight months. Each was selected for having posted professional content, interacted with other medical students and faculty or participated in professional tweet chats. 

“Medical students who regularly used Twitter as a professional tool were doing so with thoughtfulness and purpose,” wrote the authors, who include Katherine C. Chretien, MD, assistant dean for student affairs at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Twitter allowed them access and voice that supplemented their medical school experience.” 

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics provides additional guidance on social media use, such as Opinion 2.3.2, “Professionalism in the Use of Social Media,” to help physicians weigh a number of considerations when maintaining a presence online. 

Researchers found that Twitter can provide these benefits to medical students. 

Information. Students have access to content experts with whom they otherwise would not connect. This could be by asking questions of, or following, the experts or by participating in tweet chats with them. 

Collaborations. They can connect with medical students with similar interests. 

Different perspectives. Twitter also exposes medical students to varying opinions about health policy, medical education and the medical profession. For many, gaining the patient perspective is invaluable. It also enables them to understand medicine outside of the patient-physician dynamic. 

Communities. Students may find support in the medical school experience on Twitter. This could include support from fellow students, encouragement from faculty and connections with likeminded people. 

Twitter also can give medical student users a platform to pursue these ends. 

Advocacy. Some students use Twitter as a platform for expressing political views and policy positions. It can help them develop their voices and engage with people with differing opinions. 

Control of one’s digital footprint. It enables medical students to craft their online identities in consistent and positive ways. 

Equalization. Twitter can serve as leveling force in the medical hierarchy, giving equal voices to faculty, residents and students. 

Five key practices 

Besides identifying potential benefits of Twitter use, the study also cites the core practices of medical student superusers that give rise to those benefits. As a rule, these users: 

  • Are purposeful in their use of Twitter. 
  • Maintain professional demeanor. 
  • Show personality by posting more than just medical content. 
  • Practice good Twitter citizenship by contributing to conversations and observing other etiquette. 
  • Identify faculty role models. 
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