Clinical Insights

The power and promise of social media in oncology



Sharing their personal experiences on social media can emphasize oncologists’ humanity and have substantive, beneficial effects on patient care, according to a presentation at the Collaboration for Outcomes using Social Media in Oncology (COSMO) inaugural meeting.

Alan P. Lyss, MD

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

Mark A. Lewis, MD, explained to the COSMO meeting audience how storytelling on social media can educate and engage patients, advocates, and professional colleagues – advancing knowledge, dispelling misinformation, and promoting clinical research.

Dr. Lewis, an oncologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, reflected on the bifid roles of oncologists as scientists engaged in life-long learning and humanists who can internalize and appreciate the unique character and circumstances of their patients.

Patients who have serious illnesses are necessarily aggregated by statistics. However, in an essay published in 2011, Dr. Lewis noted that “each individual patient partakes in a unique, irreproducible experiment where n = 1” (J Clin Oncol. 2011 Aug 1;29[22]:3103-4).

Dr. Lewis highlighted the duality of individual data points on a survival curve as descriptors of common disease trajectories and treatment effects. However, those data points also conceal important narratives regarding the most highly valued aspects of the doctor-patient relationship and the impact of cancer treatment on patients’ lives.

In referring to the futuristic essay “Ars Brevis,” Dr. Lewis contrasted the humanism of oncology specialists in the present day with the fictional image of data-regurgitating robots programmed to maximize the efficiency of each patient encounter (J Clin Oncol. 2013 May 10;31[14]:1792-4).

Dr. Lewis reminded attendees that to practice medicine without using both “head and heart” undermines the inherent nature of medical care.

Unfortunately, that perspective may not match the public perception of oncologists. Dr. Lewis described his experience of typing “oncologists are” into an Internet search engine and seeing the auto-complete function prompt words such as “criminals,” “evil,” “murderers,” and “confused.”

Obviously, it is hard to establish a trusting patient-doctor relationship if that is the prima facie perception of the oncology specialty.

Dispelling myths and creating community via social media

A primary goal of consultation with a newly-diagnosed cancer patient is for the patient to feel that the oncologist will be there to take care of them, regardless of what the future holds.

Dr. Lewis has found that social media can potentially extend that feeling to a global community of patients, caregivers, and others seeking information relevant to a cancer diagnosis. He believes that oncologists have an opportunity to dispel myths and fears by being attentive to the real-life concerns of patients.

Dr. Lewis took advantage of this opportunity when he underwent a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) for a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. He and the hospital’s media services staff “live-tweeted” his surgery and recovery.

With those tweets, Dr. Lewis demystified each step of a major surgical procedure. From messages he received on social media, Dr. Lewis knows he made the decision to have a Whipple procedure more acceptable to other patients.

His personal medical experience notwithstanding, Dr. Lewis acknowledged that every patient’s circumstances are unique.

Oncologists cannot possibly empathize with every circumstance. However, when they show sensitivity to personal elements of the cancer experience, they shed light on the complicated role they play in patient care and can facilitate good decision-making among patients across the globe.


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