What Twitter Tells Us about the War on Cancer

asco 2014 entranceThe American Society of Clinical Oncology recently made public nearly all of the abstracts — more than 5,000 pieces of research — that were selected for the ASCO annual meeting, which kicked off in Chicago on the last day of May.

Sifting through those 5,000 abstracts would be an almost inhuman task: each abstract contains 2,000 characters. That’s 10 million characters of information about oncology created by experts that’s now available for the public to parse.

But as remarkable as the ASCO abstract drop is, that research is not the only overwhelming trove of communication on cancer created by doctors. One ASCO abstract (based on research by me and W2O colleagues Greg Matthews and Kayla Rodriguez) tells story of how, over the course of 2013, U.S. doctors tweeted about cancer 82,383 times. At 140 characters a tweet, that’s nearly 12 million characters.

We know there were 82,383 tweets because we counted them. Using our MDigitalLife database, which matches Twitter handles with verified profiles from the government’s physician database, we scanned all tweets by doctors for mentions of dozens of keywords associated with cancer over the course of calendar year 2013.

asco 2014 hashtags

Now, we haven’t read all the tweets, a task (from a word-count point of view) that would be equivalent to polishing off the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then devouring War and Peace. But we’ve looked broadly at who was talking on Twitter, what they were talking about, and when they were talking.

When it comes to the topics covered, the headline was pretty clear: breast cancer remains king. About 26 percent of all physician tweets about cancer dealt with breast cancer, a figure that almost equaled the combined discussion of lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and lymphoma — the #1, #2, #4 and #5 cancer killers.

This matches what we found last year in the Social Oncology Project, which looked at all public digital conversations — physician and otherwise — and found that breast cancer had outsized impact.

That’s not entirely surprising — the much larger public conversation about cancer is similarly disproportionate — but it does reflect the way that the conversation among professionals tracks the broader conversation. While it’s no surprise that tweets about cancer from physicians spike during the ASCO meeting, it’s not entirely intuitive that awareness months would be a key draw for physicians.

Even among those 80,000-plus tweets, you can see a clear spike for breast cancer awareness month. And it’s not just BCAM. Daily prostate cancer tweets from physicians jump by nearly 30 percent in September, during prostate cancer awareness month.

Those are the broad strokes, and, if the devil is in the details, there are a great many devils luring in 82,383 mini-missives. The word “price” comes up a couple hundred times. “Cost” is mentioned nearly 1,600 times. “Expensive” plays a role in 150 or so tweets. We have a lot of work to do in understanding those thoughts (and others), but it’s clear that it will make for interesting source material.

To be sure, Twitter is not a crystal ball. The 140-character limit no doubt scares some docs away, and it strips from others the ability to make nuanced arguments. There’s a reason that medical journals don’t publish on Twitter and why the Food and Drug Administration appears to take a dim view of marketing in a character-count world.

Still, there are treasures to be dug up in a million-word trove of tweets, created by 4,000 diverse professionals, and we’re excited to have the opportunity.

Brian Reid is director of W2O Group, a marketing and communications consulting firm.

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