Are Doctors Causing Trouble by Tweeting at Conventions?

Leigh Page


January 10, 2018

In This Article

Can Doctors Be Forbidden to Use Twitter at Meetings? 

No major conference has banned Twitter outright, but many have tried to substantially limit its use. For example, the AAFP's published guidelines say that attendees can use social media, but the restrictions it places on them seem limitless. Users should not "capture, transmit or redistribute data presented at the meeting," the AAFP says.[1]

Enforcement of such rules is a huge challenge. Anyone with a smartphone can post tweets, and it's impossible to know just by looking around a meeting room whether people are tweeting or not.

At small, closed-door meetings that unveil proprietary drug information, attendees have been required to give up their cell phones at the door, Dr Kim says. "But a major conference can't take away people's phones," he says. "People would object to that."

To limit leaks of sensitive information, conference hosts such as the American College of Physicians (ACP) ban taking photos of slides. ACP staff and designated contractors "are the only ones authorized to photograph and film events and educational sessions throughout the Conference," the ACP states.[11]

Similarly, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) states, "Photography or video taping of any sessions using cell phones or any other device is in violation of AAD policy. Violations of this policy will result in removal from the session and possible revocation of meeting registration. Session directors will be closely monitoring such occurrences."[12]

Bans on photography, though, impinge on all attendees who are taking photos of slides purely for their own use, and there are many such persons. In Medscape's poll, 66% said they took photos at meetings, whereas only 18% said they had posted such photos on social media, which would include Twitter. Furthermore, 47% of the Medscape respondents opposed banning photography at sessions—a clear warning to conferences to lay off blanket photo bans.

Enforcing limits on Twitter also puts great demands on conference staff, making them run around like the Keystone Cops. To enforce policies, they would have to keep an eye on each meeting room and then approach each suspected offender.

In some cases, such as at the American Diabetes Association (ADA), staff also monitor Twitter posts and tweet the offenders, asking them to take down certain tweets.[13] These requests are often too late, because popular tweets can be instantly passed onto many other Twitter users.

Some hosts, such as the AAD, even warn that disobedient Twitter users could be kicked out of the conference. At the ADA, attendees who ignore policy "will be at risk of losing their badge credentials," the ADA warned on its meeting site.[14]

There are no known examples, however, of conferences kicking out Twitter users. After all, they paid to attend the meeting. Thus, such talk seems like an empty threat. "If you tried to enforce rules about tweeting," Dr Kim says, "users would get upset and say it's a freedom of speech issue."

Pros and Cons of Twitter Use at Conventions

Pro: Virtual attendance is soaring. Twitter users in medical meetings provide information about presentations to a much larger group of people who didn't attend. "Twitter reaches many more than the meeting room can handle," says Dr Campbell.

Con: Physical attendance may erode. Twitter reduces the need to go to the real meeting. Are conferences now seeing a decline in attendance? It's too early to tell. Nonetheless, some conference hosts regard Twitter as a threat and have been trying to limit its use.

Pro: Research can be disseminated much faster. Live tweets from meetings instantly spread research findings around the world. "When we, as scientists, share our work, advancements will happen much faster," Dr Campbell says.

Con: Authors have less control of their research. Preliminary findings used to be shared with a small audience in the meeting room, but now they are shared with the whole Twittersphere. This means that authors lose some control over how their findings will be presented to the world.

Pro: Simple tweets allow for easy consumption. The 140-character limit on tweets, recently updated to 280 characters, forces Twitter users to get to the point, making tweets easier to consume. "Twitter is a quick, short, and simple form of communication," says Dr Kim.

Con: Simple tweets can distort findings. According to a British rheumatologist, tweets on a new arthritis study only said that it failed to meet the prespecified primary endpoint, but the full paper concluded that the research provided strong evidence of a benefit.[15] Twitter fans, however, say the medium is not supposed to be all that you read on the topic.

Pro: Twitter is easy to use. Dr Kim says it's easy to get started on Twitter. "You simply call up Twitter on your mobile device," he says.

Con: Twitter is hard to read. Tweets can seem incomprehensible. "Still having trouble wrapping my head around all the tweets," a doctor told researchers in 2012. "They say so little...but I'll keep trying."[16] One example: "wOOt! Have you heard the Duke-MURDOCK study has already banked 500k specimens? MT via @jessiet1023."[17]

Pro: Twitter creates new ways to interact. Twitter helps doctors make new contacts and extend their influence. Users can arrange meet-ups and pose questions to presenters. "Twitter is a way to make a name for yourself, get job offers, or recruit patients," Dr Kim says.

Con: Twitter makes for less interaction. Diehard tweeters seem to interact more with the Twittersphere than the people around them. "I'm now seeing mostly the tops of their heads, nose-in-laptop, tablet or phone," one conference speaker observed.[18] A Twitter fan explained, "The sound of the keyboard is the new sound of applause."[19]


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