Tweeting at ASCO Annual Meetings Can Enhance the Experience

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Increasingly, conferences are promoting or otherwise enabling the use of these types of social media during their meetings for this very purpose.

—Robert S. Miller, MD

Tweeting at concerts or plays may earn you scornful looks or even stern warnings from ushers, but tweeting at the ASCO Annual Meeting may enhance the meeting experience for you and others. In a study comparing trends in Twitter use by physicians during the 2010 and 2011 ASCO Annual Meetings, some Twitter users reported that tweeting “improved their meeting experience, increasing understanding of the data through following others,” the study’s authors reported in the Journal of Oncology Practice.1 Twitter also provided instant accessibility for those unable to attend the meeting.

Virtual Connection

“Not only was knowledge being advanced, but those who were participating in the Twitter experience felt a connection to each other,” Robert S. Miller, MD, senior author of the article and Oncology Medical Information Officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, told The ASCO Post. “Some of them may or may not have known each other. Some of them weren’t even on-site,” he said.

“Physicians used Twitter for reporting clinical news from scientific sessions, for discussions of treatment issues, for promotion, and to provide social commentary,” the authors reported. “The tangible impact of Twitter discussions on clinical practice remains unclear,” they added.

Volume Grew Significantly

The authors analyzed a combined total of 12,644 tweets that incorporated the official ASCO Annual Meeting hashtags (#ASCO10 and #ASCO11). The final data set included 979 tweets collectively generated by 14 physicians in 2010 and 1,477 tweets collectively generated by 34 physicians in 2011. The volume “grew significantly,” Dr. Miller said. “Without ASCO doing much more than saying, here is our hashtag, it took on a life of its own between 2010 and 2011.”

The three physician authors of the paper reviewed the tweeted messages and assigned them to one of four subjective categories: clinical management discussion, clinical news or trial outcome, promotional tweet, and social comment or other tweet (including personal or humorous tweets). “We intentionally did not discuss our methodology for categorization so that the independence of the physician authors could potentially represent a larger point of view,” the authors explained. “We acknowledge there was a tremendous amount of subjectivity,” Dr. Miller said.

Among physician-generated tweets analyzed from the 2010 meeting, the highest average percentage (34.5%) was assigned to the social comment or other category, followed by clinical news or trial outcome (28.6%), clinical management discussion (25.9%), and promotional (11.1%). Average category rankings for tweets from the 2011 meeting were led by clinical news or trial outcome (41.5%), followed by social comment or other (29.8%), clinical management discussion (18.9%), and promotional (9.9%) (see Table 1).

Perspective of Colleagues

Twitter can provide “up-to-the-second colleague-generated commentary and perspective on breaking data ahead of traditional online or print media and formal peer-reviewed publication,” according to the study authors.

“Increasingly, conferences are promoting or otherwise enabling the use of these types of social media during their meetings for this very purpose,” Dr. Miller said. “Meeting organizers need to expect it, prepare for it, and understand that this is the way many people will be experiencing meetings and reporting the results. A paper gets reported at a meeting and the presenters should now expect that as they are talking, people are going to be tweeting what they are saying and people are going to be commenting on that.”

There is some concern that social media leads to premature release of data, even though major media have been reporting meetings for years, perhaps not instantaneously but within hours or a day. “I have heard anecdotes about some organizations actively discouraging tweeting of results, which I frankly don’t understand, because the information is out there. ASCO releases all of its abstracts at the same time every year, and it is very appropriate to have that notification, so there is no question of impropriety of timing,” Dr. Miller said. While he had heard that some professional societies have specifically warned meeting attendees not to tweet, “I don’t know how they would enforce that, frankly. People are sitting there with their phones.”

Possible Commercial Interests

The 2011 tweets included mention of “more than 100 unique drugs or drug-drug combinations,” compared to 82 mentions in the 2010 tweets. “The frequency of drug mentions loosely correlated with abstracts featured in the plenary session,” the authors reported. “Our analysis does not exclude the possibility that some of those tweeting about specific agents had a commercial interest in the products being discussed,” they stated.

Dr. Miller said that he did not know if Twitter followers in the study were generally aware of this potential for promoting specific drugs. Those tweeting about specific agents “certainly could have conflicts of interest that they are not obligated to report,” he stated. “It is not like when you’re presenting a paper at the ASCO meeting, you’re absolutely obligated, under threat of scientific disrepute, to reveal your conflicts. There is no obligation at all to do that on Twitter. So I think that someone other than the most savvy of social media users could be hoodwinked by a clever individual who has an agenda. I don’t suspect that happens very often, but there really are no safeguards.”

Among 14 physicians responding to a follow-up survey of Twitter users at the 2011 ASCO meeting, “the majority stated that the quality of information is contingent on knowing the people that you follow and maintaining transparency regarding the nature of any commercial interests tweet authors may have.” Three of those responding to the survey reported tweeting for reasons that were categorized as self-promotion and included “promoting a poster presentation, sharing results of a clinical trial in order to recruit more patients, and generating traffic to a personal blog.” Other promotional tweets, which increased from 2010 to 2011, were for hotels, restaurants, and other commercial and tourist-related businesses in Chicago, the site of the ASCO meetings, according to Dr. Miller. “Most of the promotional stuff was innocuous and helpful and otherwise of interest,” he said.

Overall, “there was more good than bad” resulting from the 2010 and 2011 tweets, Dr. Miller stated, with the valuable outcomes, such as improved understanding and accessibility to data, outweighing the detriments, such as unwelcome promotions and time spent tweeting.

Encouraging Tweeting
at Meetings

The use of Twitter at mainstream scientific meetings like the ASCO conference is still relatively limited, Dr. Miller said, mainly appealing to a group of early adopters, but it is growing. He acknowledged that “certainly there will be many who have reservations about this,” particularly those who feel that we already spend too much time looking at electronic screens and too little time in actual human interactions. An e-mail survey conducted in 20112 revealed that there was a significant minority of “adamant nonadopters,” Dr. Miller said.

Professional organizations that want to “promote Twitter as a legitimate medium to communicate meeting proceedings and enhance attendee experience should encourage participation through the development and advance distribution of official hashtags posted on their official Web sites and their own Twitter accounts,” the authors advised.

“I think you lead by example,” Dr. Miller added, “by having an appropriate volume of Twitter usage and content links. If an organization like ASCO sends out messages that drive members to specific content—for example, come to this meeting, or read this latest journal article, or we just released some guidelines, or here’s a press release related to an important regulatory issue you ought to know about—I think that gets people’s attention.” ■

Disclosure: Dr. Miller reported no potential conflict of interest.


1. Chaudhry A, Glodé M, Gillman M, et al: Trends in Twitter use by physicians at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting, 2010 and 2011. J Oncol Pract 8:173-178, 2012.

2. McGowan B, Vartabedian B, Miller R, et al: The “meaningful use” of social media by physicians for learning. Medicine 2.0: 4th World Congress on Social Media and Web 2.0 in Medicine, Health, and Biomedical Research. Presented September 17, 2011. Available at Accessed September 11, 2012.