This is the fifth edition of The Social Oncology Project, our annual examination of the role that social media plays in the discussion of cancer. Past efforts have focused largely on the question of “what”: what topics capture the attention of the public? What kinds of cancers generate the most traffic from oncologists? What kind of connections characterize the online ecosystem in oncology?

This year, however, we sought to answer an even more basic question: “who?” There has never been an in-depth effort to understand and describe the doctors who are discussing oncology online, a sense of what sets that minority of physicians apart from their offline peers (and what connects them). This was in part about describing the demographics, elements such as age, location, and sex. But it was also about trying to divine offline behaviors, too. Are wired docs publishing more? Developing deeper relationships with industry?

This isn’t an academic exercise; understanding who is speaking about oncology topics is crucial to our ability to arrive at conclusions about what social chatter means and what it doesn’t, and who exactly this cohort speaks for.

After sifting through a mountain of data – much of which is presented in the full report – we’ve come to five initial conclusions about what it means to be an online oncologist:

  1. Tweet or perish. Being an oncologist with a public Twitter profile is correlated with more publications in two ASCO journals. Clearly, it’s important not to confuse causation with correlation, but there is clearly a nexus between old measures of “opinion leadership” and new concepts about digital influence.
  2. Age is just a number. Yes, online doctors trend younger, but the dividing line is blurry, with 76 percent of the online group on the wrong side of 40. That’s a sign that while much of what is posted online can be seen as a reflection of early-career doctors, the technology has penetrated far more deeply than just those physicians who grew up in a social-media world.
  3. Online Oncologists Take More Sunshine Payments. Though the differences aren’t huge, online oncologists appear to receive more money from industry, a phenomenon driven in part by a well-represented minority. There has been increasing attention to what these kinds of connections mean, and how to manage them, and our work confirms that this remains a fruitful area of analysis.
  4. Twitter Use is Correlated with Bad Winters. Or, at least, with being a resident of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have the highest rate of oncologists online. Understanding the environmental factors that make social media engagement will be important in understanding how to make social media more useful for a larger group.
  5. There’s a Lot We Still Don’t Know. The next questions we hope to answer: what can online relationships teach us about referral and prescription patterns? Teasing out these more subtle relationships will help us better calibrate the way that a social profile may predict or explain critical offline behaviors.

The key element of social oncology, and, indeed, the driving force of The Social Oncology Project, is driving dialogue. We have done our best to present the data we’ve gathered in a straightforward way, without generating hypotheses on the important “why” questions.

But the “why” discussion is critically important, and one that is best undertaken with as broad a group as possible. So we hope you’ll take a look at the report, hop online, and join us in parsing what it means to be a social oncologist and where the conversation goes next.

Follow Brian Reid on twitter @brianreid; Follow MDigitalLife on twitter @MDigitalLifeLike MDigitalLife on Facebook 

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