Study: Midcareer Oncologists Don't Tweet, May Be Problem

Nick Mulcahy

November 04, 2015

There is a "significant" age gap among oncologists who use social media, and that divide, which is highlighted by the lack of engagement by middle-aged doctors, could be holding back the profession, according to a new study.

In a survey of 207 Canadian medical oncologists and trainees, respondents were asked about their use of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, ASCO Connection, and other social media platforms. Social media use was highest, at 93%, in respondents 25 to 34 years of age, and was lowest, at 39%, in those 45 to 54 years.

The survey results were published online October 6 in the Journal of Oncology Practice.

"The identified gap in social media use between age cohorts may have negative implications for communication in oncology," opine the study authors, led by author Christine Simmons, MD, a medical oncologist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada.

The reasons for the low participation of "midcareer" oncologists (age range, 45 - 54 years) are not known. "Those in midcareer may be more concerned with the issues of privacy and professionalism that have been highlighted in previous papers on social media in medicine, and may not be realizing the opportunities," Dr. Simmons told Medscape Medical News.

However, the authors don't know what all of this ultimately means. "The ramifications for physician communication, collaboration, and mentorship in oncology posed by this divide remain largely unknown," they write.

Nevertheless, they speculate that the age gap could hurt mentorship.

The gap "will become increasingly evident and potentially quite hindering, as trainees struggle to connect with mentors who are largely absent from the social media sphere," they write.

The authors also suspect that low levels of social media engagement could hurt professional knowledge.

"A failure to connect online could mean missing out on the sharing of key medical information," they declare. The authors also quote and agree with an ASCO Connection blogger, who said that "the more oncologists who tweet, the more we will learn from each other."

The authors believe that sites and apps like Facebook and Twitter provide an all-round social boost for oncologists.

"The complex field of oncology will benefit from increased use of online social media to enhance physician communication, education, and mentorship," they trumpet.

We all feel a bit better when we know we're not alone.

Social media can protect against burnout, which is "continuing to rise," Dr. Simmons pointed out. "Connecting with others with similar experiences may help mitigate some of these burnout symptoms. We all feel a bit better when we know we're not alone," she said.

The survey was conducted to better understand "the patterns of social media use among oncologists," the authors report.

And here's some of what they found. First, oncologists are not enthusiastic about answering a survey on social media, even when it only has nine questions, is designed using a special website (, and is sent out repeatedly in weekly e-mail messages (from July to September 2013). The response rate was 30%, which is "low," the authors acknowledge.

Second, respondents tend to be users; 72% of respondents indicated that they use social media.

Third, respondents tend to be younger; 142 were younger than 45 years and 63 were 45 years and older.

Fourth, younger respondents tend to be users: 89% of trainees, 93% of fellows, and 72% of early-career oncologists reported social media use, compared with 39% of midcareer oncologists (age range, 45 - 54) (< .05). Notably, 59% of the "late-career" oncologists (55 years and older) reported social media use. Perhaps they have more time on their hands at that stage of life, the authors suggest.

Fifth, social media is used for personal and professional reasons. In terms of professional development, 55% of respondents said their goal in visiting social media sites was to network with colleagues or professionals, 17% sought to share research, and 13% sought leadership development.

Sixth, some social media users use an app or site "multiple times per day." The survey indicated that 27% of Facebook users, 16% of Google Plus users, and 6% of Twitter users reported multiple daily usages. In contrast, midcareer oncologists had the lowest frequency of use, "with a majority of respondents in this cohort reporting use rarely or never."

We are no longer capable of anonymity.

Medscape Medical News asked Dr. Simmons whether there are any downsides to social media.

"Many may say lack of privacy, but I think we need to acknowledge that in this era, where over half of the population of the planet is using social media, the world has essentially become akin to the culture of a small town," she explained. "Everyone may have the ability to know what you're doing, saying, posting; we are no longer capable of anonymity. But I don't think that is a downside. We are moving away from thinking about how work and outside life are balanced and more about how they are melded."

Dr. Simmons has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Oncol Pract. Published online October 6, 2015. Abstract



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