A Health Professional’s Guide to Twitter

(an entirely tweetable guide to Twitter for health professionals)

Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Twitter doesn’t interest me – I don’t care what Justin Bieber had for breakfast”? Those people speak that way because they don’t understand the difference between PERSONAL, OFFICIAL and PROFESSIONAL use of social media media.

Personal Use.

Personal use of social media is where you share photos of your holidays with family and friends on services like Facebook or Instagram. If you happen to be interested in what Justin Bieber had for breakfast, sus-out his Insta or Twitter feed. We won’t judge you 🙂

Official Use.

Official use of social media is where an entity like company or organisation presents their brand and shares information online. @IJMHN = the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing on Twitter, for instance.

Professional Use.

Professional use of social media is based on your area of expertise and interests. This use of social media allows you to share information with and interact with other individuals and organisations that have the same interests.

Health professional use of social media a legitimate thing to do. In fact, it is encouraged! Don’t believe me? Put “National Nursing and Midwifery Digital Health Capability Framework” into your favourite search engine and see for yourself.

National Nursing and Midwifery Digital Health Capability Framework includes section 1.3 Digital Identity: “Nurses and midwives use digital tools to develop and maintain their online identity and reputation.”
There are four subheadings to this section (see below)

Digital Identity 1.3.1: Maintains a professional development record demonstrating innovation, reflecting upon skills and experience to help monitor professional identity.

Digital Identity 1.3.2: Understands the benefits and risks of different ways of presenting oneself online, both professionally and personally while adhering to the NMBA social media policy.

Digital Identity 1.3.3: Understands that online posts can stay in the public domain and contribute to an individual’s digital footprint.

So, let’s be clear here. Unless your governing body (for me it’s Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, aka @AHPRA on Twitter) says otherwise, it is fine to represent yourself as a health professional online. Just be professional 🙂

Twitter: What’s in it for Health Professionals?

“Twitter is not a technology. It’s a conversation. And it’s happening with or without you.” Charlene Li (aka @charleneli), 2009, Foreword, in S. Israel (Ed). Twitter Ville: How businesses can thrive in the new global neighborhoods. New York: Portfolio.

Is there any need for health professionals to participate in conversations with each other and/or the general public about what we do, our work and values, who we are?

To borrow, and slightly mangle, a quote from Jane Caro (aka @JaneCaro), social media allows nurses and midwives unmediated access to public conversations for the first time in history. Empowering stuff, right?

Twitter puts you within reach of over 300 million people who are active each month. There are now over 500 million tweets sent every day. There are a lot of conversations going on out there!

Obviously you’re not going to read every tweet or follow ever person, but amongst this traffic you are bound to find people who share your special interest, whether it’s clinical, educational or research. eg: interested in the history of nursing? follow the #histnurse hashtag

There isn’t much in the way of hierarchies on Twitter. You can find yourself answering a question from a student nurse in Perth one minute, and the next minute sharing information with a professor of nursing in London.

When you interact with health professionals on Twitter, it usually has a tone that’s not unlike the banter you hear at nurses stations: it’s work-related, and nearly always respectful and friendly.

If the style of interaction is not respectful and friendly, perhaps the person is not a health professional, and/or perhaps you should stop interacting with them. #toxic

Twitter @ Events.

Twitter is fantastic for taking the content of conferences beyond the walls of a conference. Nearly all health care conferences have their own Twitter hashtag for this very reason.

You can find out more about conference tweeting by searching for an @IJMHN article called “Mental health nurses’ use of Twitter for professional purposes during conference participation using #acmhn2016”

Or, if you are comfortable with a blog (no paywalls!), use the search function on meta4RN.com – I have quite a few posts about conference tweeting there.

As with conference Tweeting, if you have an education session you want to spread beyond the walls of the workshop, Twitter can allow information to be shared and amplified.

I once conducted a workshop with four people in attendance; the workshop resources (web links, mostly) shared via Twitter had an audience that was in the thousands. Twitter costs nothing, yet it gives you/your info access to an audience MUCH larger than most of us would ever have face-to-face.

I use social media knowing full well that it is my loudest voice.

Engage in a Scheduled Twitter Discussion.

There are planned Twitter discussions, that is discussions with a designated time and topic, that are known as “Twitter Chats”. The chats are a fast-faced, fun way to learn and contribute to the contest of ideas in subjects of interest.

My recommendation for a sneak-peak at what a Twitter Chat looks like is to visit/follow @WeNurses (the Twitter handle) and/or #WeNurses (the hashtag). If anyone else does health-related Twitter Chats with more consistency or passion, I haven’t come across them yet.

Twitter is a microblogging platform that restricts each Tweet to 280 characters or less. This means that scanning through each Tweet is a quick and lively way to gather and share information. Perfect for the time-poor (that’s pretty-much all of us, isn’t it?).

It’s Academic.

Twitter is not the antithesis of academia. Twitter is academia’s friend.

You’ve done the research, you’ve written the paper, you’ve jumped through the flaming hoops of peer review, and – FINALLY – your paper has been published. Now you want people to read it, right? Twitter can help with that. A lot!

You can use Twitter to share journal articles. Here is an example prepared earlier:

Even busy and important academics might be able to find two minute and thirty second to watch this https://youtu.be/57Dj1XJPgjA video that explains why social media tools like Twitter and reporting tools like @altmetric are of interest.

Share or perish: Social media and the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing. https://doi.org/10.1111/inm.12600 (McNamara and Usher, 2019)

Getting Started on Twitter.

Make a choice: will you have an official, personal or professional Twitter account? Don’t mix it up. Health professionals know about boundaries, right?

On your professional Twitter account you’re not representing an organisation, but are primarily talking about work-related stuff.

Choose a short name (aka “handle”) eg: instead of @AngelaCateMaryHelenNormandy maybe you should try @ACMHN (well, if the handle is not already taken by someone else, that is 🙂)

Bad news for people without exotic names: @JohnSmith @JSmith + @SmithJ are all taken 🙄

Short names and concise tweets are good. Twitter = Brevity Central

Struggling to decide on a name? Get creative, e.g. a nerdy mental health nurse might be @MHnerse.

If you are a Registered Nurse you will almost certainly be able to use “RN” in combination with all/part of your name to make a short, snappy handle. Same would be true for OTs, GPs, SWs, SPs, PTs, ENs, etc etc

Don’t use your workplace name/initials unless you’re 100% sure you’re representing your employer rather than your professional self.

That’s why I’m @meta4RN rather than @QueenslandHealthRN – there’s a BIG difference in implications/expectations. 😬

One last thing about the Twitter handle thing: Do NOT keep the ridiculous name and number combination that Twitter might throw-up as a suggestion. Something like @JohnSmi274983615 will not be easy to remember and it will repel followers. True.

Think about how you’ll describe yourself in your Twitter bio. Do you need to name your employer? It might be easier if you don’t.

Twitter bios accommodate a bit of personality along with a description of you/your interests.

Re bio: maybe better not to say “lost virginity to a rockstar”, but “enthusiastically supporting musicians” would be OK 🙂

Professional doesn’t have to be boring.

Still nervous re the name/bio thing? You’ll get away with being anonymous, but why? On the run? Witness protection program?

And a pic. You’ll need a pic. The Twitter default avatar repels followers. #truefact

Your pic doesn’t have to be a photo. There are avatars available online PRN.

JUST DON’T BE A WEIRD GREY LITTLE SILHOUETTE OF A MAN! #scaramouchscaramouchwillyoudothefandango


Now. When you’re ready, announce your arrival to the Twitterverse. No pressure: channel Neil Armstrong.

Next up you’ll want to start following some people, otherwise your Twitter feed will be bare, and you will feel sad, lonely and bored. 😕

Who to follow? It depends on your interests. Use the Twitter search function to search for your areas of interest.

Other ideas on who to follow: your professional college, the health journal(s) you read most, your union, your local health services, your colleagues, your heroes.

Twitter is not like Facebook. It is perfectly acceptable, not at all stalker-ish, to follow a complete stranger.

Twitter is not like Facebook. It is perfectly acceptable, not at all rude to unfollow somebody (eg: if their tweets don’t interest you)

The Mighty Hashtag

Now, about hashtags… don’t be intimidated. You can use Twitter happily with never using one, BUT…

Hashtags pull disparate conversations and people together. If you haven’t seen this in action previously, check out these hashtags on Twitter: #COVID19 #wenurses #medtwitter #wespeechies or a conference hashtag like #ACMHN2019

As an example of the power of hashtag: even if you had the most incisive political tweet ever created, @QandA viewers would not ever know about it without the #QandA hashtag.

Create your own hashtags, BUT learn from the Susan Boyle album launch hashtag: #susanalbumparty can be read 2 ways 🙂

So, what to Tweet about? Anything that you think is relevant to people who may share all or some of your interests.

Remember: the conventions of professional communication are long-established: letters, email etc. Why change it on Twitter?

Now, pause for a moment and check-out your employer’s and registering body’s social media guidelines.

Any surprises for you there? Probably the only thing that routinely surprises people is being extra careful about testimonials/advertising. Most of us find the rest of it pretty sensible and intuitive.

Twitter Tips.

The easiest way to learn Twitter is to follow people who have already learned Twitter. Then get started with your Tweets/Retweets and replies. Stick with it – it’ll click in.

Definitely download a Twitter app onto your mobile. I’m happy enough with the default app by @Twitter, but also like @HootSuite and @TweetDeck. As a newby, don’t rush for a paid app – the free ones are fine.

Be careful mixing personal and professional. Boundaries are important.

You already know about confidentiality; if you’re doing confidentiality wrong online it will definitely get spotted.

Naturally, you would NEVER give individual or detailed clinical advice on Twitter.

Generalised info is fine, e.g.: Getting great feedback from consumers about the @beyondblue app called “Beyond Now” (it’s free and evidence-based)

Try not to act like a dickhead. Also, don’t use words like “dickhead” – it’s unprofessional.

Apologise if you do/say something stupid. BTW sorry for saying “dickhead” before.

Twitter spam is especially good at playing on the insecurities of newbies, so be vigilant + don’t click dodgy links.

Spam example 1: This person is saying horrible things about you http://www.dodgylink.com DON’T CLICK!

Spam example 2: This photo of you! LOL http://www.dodgylink.com DON’T CLICK!

Mostly you won’t Tweet from/about your workplace… you’ll have your work to do.

There may be an occasional exception to the workplace rule, e.g.: How cool are these paeds ward Christmas decorations?

Would your patients or boss be offended by that Tweet or photo? Yes = Delete. No = Tweet.

Connect. Be generous. Have fun.

End Notes.

This is a reworking of a 2014 web page I wrote for Ausmed called “A Nurses Guide To Twitter”. 2014 is so old in internet terms it has been consigned to the Internet Archive (aka Wayback Machine). That webpage was, in turn, a reworking of a 2013 workshop and blog page called “A Twitter Workshop in Tweets“. Self-plagiarism? Such an ugly word! Let’s call it a funky new remix of a favourite old song.

I was keen to republish it as an alternative to doing a series of inservices and workshops. It’s more expedient for me to do stuff like this in my own time, and leave work time to do the stuff related directly to my paid role.

Also, it’s fun to make the whole thing in tweetable chunks. Please feel free to tweet/share your favourite bits.

As always, you are welcome to leave feedback in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 10 November 2021

Short URL: meta4RN.com/twitter

Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Australia

1 thought on “A Health Professional’s Guide to Twitter

  1. Matthew

    Some sound suggestions here, Paul. Thanks. Working for a government department may be limiting as to what is considered OK to post. Recent issues where a staff member has used social media as a form of reflective practice which would have been best kept to clinical supervision!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s