There is a classic Seinfeld scene in which Jerry, fed up with his dermatologist girlfriend, calls her out for what he believes is an over-dramatization of her profession. “Pimple-Popper, MD!” he shouts, moments before a grateful skin cancer patient ambles up to the table and thanks the doctor for saving his life.
It’s easy to pull a Seinfeld and forget that cancer is a thread that runs through nearly all of medicine, a fact that was brought home in an analysis we performed that was made public today as part of the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. We looked at every tweet about cancer from U.S. physicians in 2013 — all 82,383 of them — and we found that oncologists and surgeons made up a minority of all cancer tweets.
To be sure, oncologist tweeted more about cancer than any other specialty, but the volume of tweets from other specialties served as a sober reminder of how deep the roots of cancer go. Dermatologists deal with melanoma (and preventing melanoma), driving more than 3,200 tweets about cancer. Gastroenterologists encounter a number of tumor types, from colon to liver, which may explain the 2,400 tweets they generated last year. Pediatricians talked cancer in 2,100 tweets, a testament to the fact that while medicine has made great strides in childhood cancer, the specter looms.
The data that undergirds the ASCO analysis used our proprietary MDigitalLife database, which seeks to match public data about U.S. doctors — everything from their Twitter handle to their website to their Medicare billing — with their unique National Provider ID. It’s our view that understanding the conversations that doctors on Twitter provides critical insight into the practice of medicine today.
Without that data, it’s tempting to make the same error Seinfeld did and assume a cartoonish view of medicine in which all dermatologists focus on the cosmetic side of things, where all surgeons are distant and stoic, and where all emergency room attendings are adrenaline junkies. This new dataset helps burst those myths and offer a deeper picture of how the emerging digital physician views the world.
The new MDigitalLife ASCO data shows, for instance, that doctors are tracking the same cancer types as their patients are. Just as the breast cancer conversation is dominant in the general public (a finding that was central in last year’s The Social Oncology Project, our look across the cancer landscape last year), it’s just as big with physicians. Awareness months? Doc conversations spike then, too. (Though major conferences also prompt a rise in conversations.)
We’ve only just begun to dig into this trove of data; the goal, as always, is to better understand how information moves through the system. Who is doing the educating? Who is being educated? What’s hot (and what’s not)? To ignore those insights is to be a bystander. A guilty bystander. And in the age of the epatient and the digital doc, that’s simply unacceptable.