Social media opening up conversation on stem cells

Mammary stem cells growing in a spherical formation. Taken by Craig Aarts.

Mammary stem cells growing in a spherical formation. [Photo courtesy of Craig Aarts]

Social media may improve the way physicians understand their patients.

According to a study presented by UBC neurology professor Julie Robillard at this year’s annual Meeting of the American Advancement of Science conference, some health care professionals are turning to social media as a way to share pertinent medical information.

Robillard, alongside psychology student Emanuel Cabral, spent six months analyzing posts on Twitter regarding stem cell research. Robillard and Cabral tailored their investigation to conversations surrounding two areas of study. These included 1,200 tweets on spinal cord injuries and 1,000 tweets on Parkinson’s disease. The majority of tweets observed came from American users.

In addition to assessing content, the examination also took note of the individuals tweeting health information. While physicians are typically considered averse to social media, the findings revealed that health care experts posted approximately 25 per cent of tweets on spinal cord injuries and 15 per cent of tweets on Parkinson’s disease. ​

Robillard believes this type of social media activity will help physicians gain insight into the queries, interests and values of the general public. “I think it will really help for physicians to say, “Here’s the kind of discussions that are going on, here’s what you can expect,’” she says.

While Robillard discovered that physicians were using Twitter as a way to broadcast research findings and reports, particularly those associated with medical breakthroughs, there is some apprehension surrounding social media as a health tool.

Initial skepticism

Stem Cell Network Director of Communications Lisa Willemse is somewhat skeptical of what physicians can do online, especially when it comes to consultation.

“You’re tweeting in 140 characters, so you cannot get patient history, so therefore can you give any specific advice to anybody?” says Willemse.

Although advice might be outside the realm of social media platforms like Twitter, Ottawa-based physicians are turning to online forums as a way to disseminate health news, facts and findings.

Since 2005, University of Ottawa family medicine professor Dr. Yonni Freedhoff has been blogging on his website Weighty Matters. With over 2,600 entries, the page has become a local go-to for medical information addressing obesity, weight management and a an assortment of health topics.

Blogging is one of many routes Dr. Freedhoff believes physicians can take when developing a more communicative and effective medical practice.

“There are lots of avenues for physicians to make themselves heard. It could be local politics or a school board…this could serve public health,” says Dr. Freedhoff.

Robillard admits there is more progress to be made, not only in terms of social media usage, but also in terms of research. Her desire to analyze social media was initially shot down, a product of her colleagues pinning Twitter as a forum for young people disinterested in medical research.

“I think it will really help for physicians to say, ‘Here’s the kind of discussions that are going on, here’s what you can expect.’”

In spite of the criticism, Robillard pressed ahead, collecting Twitter data in her own time that was geared towards dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. She was encouraged to apply her investigation to stem cells due to the online activity of patients who often use websites such as Twitter to search for relevant information.

Considering the nature of the accounts circulating information on stem cell research as well as the types of readers, it surprised Robillard that she found few comments criticizing stem cell research. In fact, less than five per cent of the tweets analyzed denounced medical investigations on stem cells.

Absence of negativity is reflective of general enthusiasm surrounding stem cell research. Robillard believes the field is one of the most exciting branches of biotechnology, one that should be examined from multifaceted angles, including virtual formats.

For the moment, a quick search on stem cell research on Twitter reveals a sprawling list of accounts, some representing communities rooted in academia, technology and journalism. It appears that no matter the lens used to observe stem cell research, there is an associated forum with hashtags and carefully curated tweets.

Robillard’s study may further online activity geared towards stem cell research and by extension, several categories of health. With discussions on Robillard already cropping up on Twitter through hashtags such as #healthresearch, #UBC and #AASmtg, the research is creating the very discussions that it analyzed.

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