Using Twitter can help physicians be better prepared to answer questions from their patients, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia.

The study, presented on February 14 at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), finds more and more health care professionals are embracing social media. This challenges common opinion that physicians and researchers are reluctant to jump on the social media bandwagon.

“Many people go online for health information, but little research has been done on who is participating in these discussions or what is being shared,” says Dr. Julie Robillard, lead author and neurology professor at UBC’s National Core for Neuroethics and Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

“The conversation about health and research on Twitter gives us a glimpse into not only what users see when they go online, but what they think is worth sharing.”

And what is worth sharing? “Sentences from lay abstracts, papers and press releases are often quoted directly on Twitter,” says Dr. Robillard. “For researchers, I think it’s important to be aware that their work is being discussed on Twitter, and that their choice of words can have a powerful impact.”

Robillard and fourth-year psychology student Emanuel Cabral spent six months monitoring conversations surrounding stem cell research related to spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease on Twitter. They found roughly 25 per cent of the tweets about spinal cord injury and 15 per cent of the tweets about Parkinson’s disease were from health care professionals.

The study found the majority of tweets were about research findings, particularly the ones perceived as medical breakthroughs. The most shared content were links to research reports.

The study also found the users tweeting about spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease differed. Users who tweeted about spinal cord injury talked about clinical trials, while users who tweeted about Parkinson’s disease mostly talked about new tools or methods being developed to conduct research.

Less than five per cent of the tweets spoke out against stem cell research, which surprised the researchers.

“We expected to see debate on stem cell controversy,” says Robillard. “But people are sharing ideas of hope and expectations much more than anything else.”

Robillard believes social media can help physicians become more aware of what their patients are consuming about scientific research beyond traditional media.

“Simply being aware of what is most discussed and what patients may have seen on social media can help physicians better prepare for the questions they’ll encounter in the clinic,” says Dr. Robillard.

Dr. Robillard presented Finally, We Can Grow Spines: Stem Cells on Twitter at the 2015 AAAS annual meeting on February 14, 2015. Want to join the conversation? Connect with Dr. Robillard on Twitter.