How Twitter hashtags can start medical conversations
■ A practical look at information technology issues and usage
Anyone who has taken even a casual look at Twitter likely has seen a word or string of letters after a "#" sign. That sign is called a hashtag, and social media experts say it is key to getting the most out of Twitter.
Hashtags represent topics of conversation. Doing a search for one can direct you to all of the tweets on that topic, making it easier to join the conversation. They also can help you keep your topics of interest organized and easier to follow.
Hashtags are created on an informal basis by Twitter users. Basically, just by typing the "#" sign and following it by a word, phrase or string of letters, a hashtag has been created.
Tom Lee, partner with the Fox Group, a health care consulting firm in Upland, Calif., said most physicians starting on Twitter first look for colleagues and other health care professionals with whom they want to connect. Hashtags, he said, help you find people interested in the same topics.
Once physicians feel comfortable enough with Twitter to start tweeting to a patient audience, hashtags also can help physicians act as curators to guide patients to quality information, Lee said.
Audun Utengen, director of Fox's ePractice division, said a great place to start is searching for tweets with the "#MDchat" hashtag. Physicians in the Twitter community host weekly one-hour live Twitter conversations, and searching under that hashtag will give you access to all conversations there. Utengen said hashtags can give physician newcomers a sense about whom they might want to follow.
A good hashtag to follow, according to Lee, is "#hcsm" (health care social media). Following that hashtag also will alert you to other health care-related hashtags, because most users of the #hcsm hashtag are health care professionals who are leaders in social media use.
Searching made easy
Fox's ePractice recently launched the Healthcare Hashtag Project, an online database of all non-disease, health-related hashtags. Physicians can find related hashtags by searching for topics. Users also can search the hashtag itself and find the topic it relates to. The site also lists the top 10 most viewed hashtags.
Lee said the project was launched to help physicians embrace social media and understand Twitter, which can be confusing because there is no guidebook.
Michael Harkey, managing director of ImageShack, parent company to Yfrog, a service that allows users to post photos and videos to Twitter, said hashtags also can help Twitter users organize conversations. If someone wants to follow conversations around multiple topics, the hashtags can help keep those conversations in one place.
Dan Carter, executive vice president of the Waltham, Mass., public relations firm Racepoint Group and founder of Health Care 3.0, an online community of health care professionals and media, suggests physicians use programs such as Tweetdeck to search hashtags. On Tweetdeck, users can create columns for each hashtag they follow. It helps users monitor the conversations in an organized way. The program and similar services that help organize Twitter feeds are free to download.
Because there are no rules when creating hashtags, sometimes several hashtags might exist for the same topic. One example Utengen often sees is the plural and singular version of the same word.
He suggests that users search for related hashtags, either on the Healthcare Hashtag Project site or on Twitter directly and see which are the most active for a particular topic. Harkey also recommends seeing who the most influential people are in each conversation, then see what hashtags they are using.
If no relevant hashtags exist for the conversation you want to start, you can create your own. Experts say it's important to keep it short. A good hashtag will anticipate how people search for topics on Twitter. And Twitter searches are different from Google searches, because hashtags count toward the 140 characters allowed per tweet.
For example, a Google search for hospice and palliative medicine becomes a search for #hpm on Twitter.
Utengen said that once you create a hashtag, send a few tweets to your followers with the hashtag included, and alert people to the conversation you want to start. Continue placing that hashtag in each related tweet you send. You also can register the hashtag at the Healthcare Hashtag Project site, and it will send an announcement to its Twitter followers.
Because there are no hard and fast rules for using Twitter and hashtags, you can go on the site and experiment or merely observe. Even if you're not ready to create your own hashtag, or even send a tweet, that's OK, experts say. Spend some time lurking and see what others are doing to get a feel for how it works.