This blog is about how best to use social media in medsin. If you’ve stumbled across this and you’re not sure what medsin is, have a look at their website. They’re a fantastic organisation of medical students doing voluntary work on a local and global scale. If you’re in the training session…welcome.

There can be no question that over the past few years social media has exploded and is influencing doctors, medicine and healthcare in the widest sense. In fact, the first task of the recently formed Junior Doctors Network (affiliated to the World Medical Association) is to draw up a white paper on social media. Can and should medsin members be getting on this band wagon? If you decide to do so, what is the best way to go about it. Let’s have a look in some more detail…


This definition will no doubt be deficient and out of date very soon! However, for the purposes of this blog I consider social media to be any form of online method of communication that can be read by a large and unspecified audience with the possibility of a reply.

To make it clear, in my own mind I’m mainly thinking about twitter (or equivalents), facebook (of google plus, diaspora etc), picture sharing (eg flickr) and blogs.

Strategy and reward

Social media can be an utter waste of time. Many hours tapping away at a computer keyboard may result in no one reading your tweets/blogs/facebook page. However, the rewards are potentially great if you have a clear strategy and an awareness of the limitations of the online social sphere.

A clear strategy starts beyond the computer. There is no replacement for an efficient strategic planning process with clear direction and measurable outcomes. If you are going to use social media, it must be within this framework and closely aligned with your organisational aims.

Let’s start by thinking about what social media can not achieve.

  • social media is not direct action – it does not directly feed the hungry or provide clean water to remote villages
  • social media is not efficient for spreading information – small snippets can be passed on, but in depth knowledge of laws, politics, diseases or demographics must come from elsewhere
  • social media is not a direct lobbying tool  – this is perhaps controversial since some important people are on social media networks and some blogs are influential, but most are there to monitor public opinion. Well structured argument to change policy is usually better done through the democratic process by means such as letters or face-to-face meetings.

What then can we use social media for?

  • awareness raising
  • prompting people to action
  • recruitment
  • participating in debate

If, and only if, your organisation strategy involves one of these aims, then social media may be for you.

Measurable outcomes

Wordpress stats

Assessing the outcome of social networking can be difficult. However, there are tools to help. A number of social media methods come with their own in-built measures.

Hits are often said to be the currency of the internet. WordPress, for example, gives you stats on the number of hits for your blog. Most other blog sites will do the same.

Klout score Almamata vs Tim Rittman

Hootsuite is a tool that helps to bring together a number of different social media types under one roof. There are a dazzling array of different measures that you can build in to individualised reports. However, most of these require a ‘pro’ account of $5.99 a month (hence I don’t have a picture of them!).

A nice alternative is the klout score, which is a single value of ‘influence’ from 0 to 100. It’s free and you can add a number of different social mediums to try and boost your score. You can also compare against others who are ‘influencers’. There will always be a debate about exactly whether it is calculated in the correct way, but at least it may give you a trend over time reflecting the importance of your social network.

Keeping up to date

One of the biggest challenges with social media is the amount of reading you have to do to keep up-to-date. In the medical world it is not unusual to keep up with a number of journals per week. Add to that blogs, twitter feeds, news websites etc… the list becomes almost unmanageable.

It is important to read widely in any field, as you will be better able to contribute to discussions and provide much-needed content for your social media comments. For personal comments, a description of your breakfast may be sufficient. But for medsin and related activities, you need to have a sense of trends and ideas which are circulating and of interest.

Again, there are tools which may help us. Twitter, for example, has the capacity for setting up lists. This makes it easier to browse different topics fairly quickly. Google+ introduced the idea of ‘circles’ to separate groups of contacts, again, making trends within each circle easier to follow.

A selection of my RSS feeds

RSS feeds are a good way to see headlines, then read on if something catches your eye. Most smart phones and internet browsers (firefox, internet explorer, opera) have RSS readers either built in or available as add-ons. Look for the small orange RSS feed, then drag+drop to your RSS reader of choice. A number of websites, including the Almamata website, has a continually updated list of incoming feeds, then puts out an RSS feed of its own combining the incoming feeds.

A simple way to summarise popular web content is to use some sort of customised ‘newspaper’ website. There are a few different ones available, for example Almamata has a tweeted times page. This summarises content linked by twitter contacts, then ranks them on a single page.

For a much more complex and powerful organiser, then something like netvibes may be useful. This website gives you a number of desktops that you can populate with apps. Each app connects either to a website, a specific piece of information (eg the weather) or allows a customised feed to be inserted. Ease of switching between app and reader modes makes it fairly simple to keep an eye on the latest postings. From scratch it took me about half an hour to set up my own personal page, but I have constantly added feeds to it over time. Other similar sites will have different emphases, for example Newswhip that looks at recently trending web content across different social media.

Just a word of warning! With increasing ‘choice’ over what we read, people tend to only read what they agree with. I would strongly encourage you to read or follow something you (think) you disagree with. Allow yourself to be influenced and change your opinion!

Types of social media

I’m deliberately going to shy away from listing all the different types of social media. They have tended to change over time and I’m concerned about this blog getting out of date too quickly! However, I’ll focus on Almamata as we’ve been recently setting up our social media outlets. They’re not perfect and I would love you to learn from our mistakes (they’re not difficult to spot!).

Short messages. Twitter is the most popular of these services. This type of social media is by far the easiest to use. Many different twitter clients are available and individual taste dictates which you use. However, to maintain a high profile you need to be reading most of the tweets you follow and be tweeting multiple times per day. This is hard work and in reality requires a twitter client on your phone. Multiple users on the same account can help overcome this to some degree. Additionally, many other sites (such as blogs) have an option to automatically post to twitter.

Blogs. There are a plethora of different blog sites to use. One of the simplest to get up and running is tumblr. This allows you to post quotes, text, video, photos with relative ease. It is possible to customise the site (we haven’t done yet so we’ve got an odd flowery hippy thing going on), but this requires some knowledge of html (website design language). As you can see, I use wordpress. It’s a big more clunky, but has the advantage of a bit more feedback and perhaps a site people are more likely to search.

Social networks. Almamata has a facebook group, although it’s not perhaps used as much as the other social media outlets. Here you can see where perhaps judicious choice of what you use is important. At Almamata we have a mailing list through which we contact members, and additionally tumblr and twitter to update the social sphere. Facebook has been used to promote events, but has a lot of overlap with the other methods therefore is not regularly updated.

Almamata doesn’t have a flickr account, but my personal photstream is here. Many organisation use flickr pictures to publicise their activities, such as UNHCR. If you have a particularly visual activity this can be useful. However, be careful about obtaining consent for pictures to appear, particularly patients and children (this includes overseas situations such as electives).


The main point I want to get across is that using social media appropriately can be hard. It requires strategy, personnel time, lots of reading and appropriate choices from the vast array of possible social media tools.

Finally, I’d love you to comment or suggest updates to this article. That’s how it works…