How Twitter Amplifies My Doctor and Human Voice

Karmela Kim Chan, MD


December 02, 2020

Editorial Collaboration

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When I graduated from residency in 2007, Facebook had just become "a thing," and my cohort decided to use it to keep in touch. These days, Twitter seems to be the social media platform of choice for healthcare professionals.

When I started on Twitter a few years ago, it was in reaction to the current political climate. I wanted to keep track of what my favorite thinkers were writing. I was anonymous and tweeted about politics mostly. My husband was my only follower for a while.

I de-anonymized when, at last year's ACR meeting, I presented a poster and wanted to reach a wider audience. I could have created two different personas on Twitter, like many doctors apparently do. Initially, I resisted doing that because I am frankly too lazy to keep track of two different social media profiles, but now I resist because I see my profession as an extension of my political self, and have no problem with using my (very low) profile to amplify both my doctor voice and my human voice.

Professionally, Twitter is rewarding. It is a space for networking and for promoting one's work. It is a fantastic learning format, as evidenced by the popularity of tweetorials. The international consortium that has worked to collect information on rheumatology patients with COVID  started as an idea on Twitter. The fact that ACR Convergence 2020 abstracts are now available? I only know because of the #ACRambassadors that I follow.

But I find that I cannot separate who I am from what I do. As a rheumatologist, I build long-term relationships with patients. I cannot care for their medical conditions in isolation without also concerning myself with their nonmedical circumstances. For that reason, I have opinions that one might call humanist, and I suspect that I am not alone among rheumatologists.

I can think of three areas, broadly construed but with huge overlaps, that concern me a great deal.

First, there are things that affect all physicians: race and gender discrimination in the workplace; advancement of women in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM); Medicare reimbursement; COVID-19 preparedness; immigration issues (an issue near and dear to me, as I am an immigrant and a foreign medical graduate); and federal funding (including funding for training programs and community health centers, funding for the NIH, and funding for stem cell research).

Then there are the things that affect rheumatologists in particular. Access to medications and procedures is one thing. (I did say these categories hugely overlap.) If you've ever tried to prescribe even a drug as old as oral cyclophosphamide, you'll have experienced the difficulty of getting it for Medicare patients. Patients who need biologics are limited by insurance contracts with pharmaceutical companies, but also by requirements such as step therapy. I am all varieties of annoyed, incredulous, and apologetic that when a patient asks me how much a treatment will cost him/her, I do not have an answer.

Speaking of pricing, don't even get me started on pharmaceutical company price gouging. Yes, the H.P. Acthar gel may be the most egregious offender among rheumatology medications, but it's easy to not prescribe a drug that costs $80,000 a vial and which does not do much more than prednisone does. On the other hand, I remember a time when colchicine cost 10 cents a pill and patients did not have to jump through hoops to get it.

And what of reproductive freedom? Our patients rely on us for advice about their childbearing options, including birth control, IVF, and pregnancy termination.

Finally, and most important, the things that affect me most are the issues that affect patients. The lowest-hanging fruit here is the abject incompetence of the federal response to the ongoing pandemic. How many of our patients' lives have been lost or adversely affected? And what of coverage for preexisting conditions for the vast majority of our patients, whose illnesses are chronic?

While we're at it, the fact of health insurance being tied to employment, something that seemingly no other country in the developed world does, makes living with chronic conditions outright scary, doesn't it? it isn't quite so easy to remain employed when one cannot get the right medications for rheumatoid arthritis.

I could go on. Gun violence and healthcare disparities, vaccine denialism, coverage for mental health issues, LGBTQ rights, refugee rights, police brutality… There is a seemingly endless list of things to care about. It's exhausting.

While I do use my Twitter account to learn from colleagues and to promote work that interests me, my primary aim is to participate in civil society as a person. Critics will use "stay in your lane" as shorthand to say x professionals should stick to x (actors to acting, musicians to music, athletes to sports). If only I could. But my humanity won't let me. Aristotle said man is a political animal; even the venerable New England Journal of Medicine has found it impossible to keep silent.

Karmela Kim Chan, MD, is an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and an attending physician at Hospital for Special Surgery and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Before moving to New York City, she spent 7 years in private practice in Rhode Island and was a columnist for a monthly rheumatology publication, writing about the challenges of starting life as a full-fledged rheumatologist in a private practice.

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