Hashtag Medicine: Abstract Tweeted at ASCO Ignites Debate

Liz Neporent

June 13, 2019

CHICAGO — When Tatiana Prowell, MD, tweeted about an abstract showing the differences in the way male and female presenters are introduced at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, she didn't expect her post to get much traction.

"This abstract deserves attn of all at this mtg, whether an #ASCO19 session chair or in the audience. Dr. @NarjustDumaMD et al analyzed assoc of race/gender & use of professional title during speaker intros at @ASCO mtgs. Hear full results Mon 2p in S100BC. cc @HemOncWomenDocs t.co/w1eLJuykpv," tweeted Prowell, who is an assistant professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the breast cancer scientific lead for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

https://twitter.com/tmprowell/status/1135165828754759685

The tweet referenced an investigation by Narjust Duma, MD, a hematology fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which found that male physician presenters at the 2016 and 2017 ASCO meetings were introduced by their professional title — doctor — 80% of the time whereas women physicians were introduced by that title only about half of the time.

At first the Twitterverse was supportive, Prowell said. Many women chimed in to say they had experienced the same sort of "unintended bias" at some point in their careers. Both male and female physicians thanked her for highlighting the session, which would be taking place later in the meeting.

Dr Tatiana Prowell

But as Prowell's post quickly racked up more than 100 retweets, negative comments started overtaking the discussion. Tweets from several male physicians said she was unfairly pushing political correctness. A number of respondents called out Duma for cherry-picking data to support her ideas, while others suggested that women physicians were being overly sensitive and unreasonable in their expectations. One even compared the abstract to "anti-vax misinformation."

Some of the nasty comments were later deleted, Prowell claims. And some of the angrier users moved off of public Twitter and began communicating with her privately on Twitter's "direct message" service. One user methodically blocked everyone who liked, retweeted, or made a positive comment in response to Prowell's tweet, preventing them from seeing his additional tweets and effectively cutting them out of the conversation.

Prowell said she is perplexed by the hostility her tweet received because she didn't see the topic as a controversial issue.

"I had tweeted that the abstract was of interest without weighing in on the validity or meaning of its results," she said, "At some point the response began to feel like harassment." 

Prowell said she did not respond to any of the insulting tweets or messages. The backlash from a small number of individuals strengthened her resolve to raise these kinds of issues with her colleagues, she noted. As the incoming education chairperson for ASCO 2020, she is in a unique position to do just that.

Prowell has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2019 Annual Meeting.

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