#EMConf: Live Tweeting?

Author: Vidya Eswaran, MD (EM Resident Physician, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine) // Edited by: Alex Koyfman, MD (@EMHighAK, EM Attending Physician, UTSW / Parkland Memorial Hospital) and Brit Long, MD (@long_brit)

It’s no secret that the #FOAMed movement is strong on Twitter. Blogs, articles, and opinions are shared on a nearly 24/7 basis. Within minutes, clinical questions can be answered, connections can be made, and knowledge can be shared among physicians from around the world. Increasingly, Twitter use at conferences has also grown. An analysis of tweets sent from an Australian Emergency Medicine Conference from 2011 to 2014 showed a 920% increase in the number of tweets from 460 to 4694, and an increase in number of tweet generators from 54 to 572.[1] This phenomenon is not limited to Emergency Medicine, and specialties such as Family Medicine,[2] Urology, Oncology,[3] and Surgery[4] have all participated in this trend. It has even been posited that “Global twitter conferences could be a cost-effective and low-carbon complement to traditional conferences”.[5]  Beyond tweets from large-scale meetings, residency programs are increasingly tweeting ‘pearls’ from their weekly educational conferences using the hashtag #EMConf.[6] From Dec 28, 2016 to Jan 6, 2017, 277 tweets were sent with the hashtag #EMConf by 145 users, reaching an audience of 135,835. I myself have sent numerous tweets from national conferences as well as from my own residency program’s weekly conference and have found myself asking the questions: Are my tweets serving any purpose, or am I merely adding to the background noise on the Twitter-sphere? Could my tweets serve more harm than good?

The Case for Live-Tweeting

Attending conferences is expensive – the flight, hotel, and food expenses can add up, especially for residents on a limited income. The core behind the entire FOAMed movement is to break down barriers to accessing medical education, and tweeting conferences is another means to this end. By attending conferences-by-proxy via Twitter, physicians can learn what is on the forefront of clinical innovation as well as review the fundamentals. This makes us better physicians, and thereby can improve the care we give our patients – our ultimate goal.

One thing I’ve learned in my, albeit short, time as an EM physician, is that practice variation abounds – regionally, hospital-wide, and even amongst providers in the same department. By sharing information from conferences we encourage engagement and discourse from physicians around the world. From this there is the possibility to learn how different physicians practice, and with careful consideration, physicians could apply a new practice pattern to their patient care through further education on the topic.

One might question the percentage of conference tweets which actually hold educational value. One study, at least, seems to show the majority does. The authors analyzed data from 2014 European Public Health Conference held in Glasgow. 1066 tweets were retrieved, of which 60% had session-related content while social/logistic-related tweets were only 16%.[7]

While providing free access to educational content to emergency physicians is a very benevolent task, I would be remiss to say that live-tweeting a conference is without any personal benefit. The conference attendee who sends out tweets has the potential to expand his or her personal network on social media. For some an increase in the number of followers is in itself an achievement, and as the case with networking of any kind, can lead to increased opportunities in the future. Benefits also exist for the speaker whose lecture is being tweeted. Live-tweets of your presentation can serve as free publicity of your research or of your presentation skills and could lead to opportunities to speak at other institutions or conferences. Finally, conferences themselves benefit from live-tweeting of their events. By raising awareness of their conference, Twitter serves as a free source of advertising and branding, and might encourage those not in attendance to register in the future. Additionally residency programs which tweet their conferences may find their tweets to be a source of advertising to residency applicants.

The Case against Live-Tweeting

A common criticism of FOAMed in general is that the content published is not as rigorously assessed for accuracy as more traditional sources of education. FOAMed proponents have responded by emphasizing that peer-review does in fact occur both prior-to and after publication of FOAMed pieces. Live-tweeting magnifies this issue. Tweets are often sent rapidly, as the tweet writer sits in the conference – opening potential for mistakes not only from the conference speaker but from the transcriber as well. One study analyzed tweets sent from an emergency medicine conference where speakers were asked to assess the level to which tweets from their talk accurately represented what they intended to convey. The investigators found that speakers believed that 43.2% tweets represented, 43.2% partly represented, and 8.1% misrepresented what they intended to convey.[8] While likely a genuine mistake on the part of the tweet generator, the implications could be grave if wrong information were applied in a clinical situation. Along these lines, it is possible that comments made by the speaker may be taken out of context leading to sensationalization and misrepresentation, which can be harmful not only in terms of the veracity of the tweet but may have negative repercussions for the speaker him/herself.

FOAMed is often criticized because its content is not broad. One study found that topics such as airway techniques, ECG interpretation, resuscitation, ultrasonography, and analysis of literature were overrepresented while cutaneous, hematologic, obstetric and gynecologic, and non-traumatic musculoskeletal disorders were rarely covered.[9] A similar case could be made for tweets from conferences. Just as we will never know if an unattended tree in the forest makes a noise as it hits the ground, we cannot glean information from a talk at which nobody tweets. A larger number of tweet generators may attend talks at conferences about popular or exciting topics, and other, perhaps more mundane, but equally important topics may not be broadcasted.

We can all remember a lecture in which we have found our minds wandering, or had the experience of being in a thoroughly engaging presentation, only to forget what was taught the next day. Those who tweet during conferences have two tasks: they must both pay attention to the content being delivered as well as expend mental energy to summarize important points into 140 character ‘pearls’. It seems inevitable that some content will be missed in the process. Not only is the tweet generator missing out on educational content, but their Twitter followers are also not gleaning the entirety of the presentation. Of all the critiques regarding live-tweeting, I think this to the most dangerous and in need of the most investigation. The primary goal for any learner, whether it be in a residency program setting or at a national conference, is to fill his or her own personal educational needs. Only then can one focus on spreading that knowledge to others. If live-tweeting prevents active engagement in the course, then it can be argued that the ‘risks’ of tweeting outweigh the benefits. On the other hand, others may find tweeting to be in line with their personal learning style by encouraging them to listen, synthesize, and summarize the main points of a lecture in real-time. Additionally, the act of typing may in itself serve as further ‘active learning’ to cement key topics.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

There are many questions yet to be answered – can learning from tweets be quantified, is there a way to ensure the greatest degree of accuracy in live-tweets, can we ensure that learners aren’t distracted from lecture content while tweeting? At this point in time I think I will continue to live-tweet. I enjoy being a part of the FOAMed community both as a generator of tweets as well as an enthusiastic reader of others’. As I ride the bus into shifts on Thursday mornings I find myself skimming through tweets from residency programs around the country, saving the ones I find interesting for further investigation. As with most things on the internet, however, I approach everything I read with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is on me to trust, but verify, what others tweet before implementing it into my clinical practice.

To those of you considering live-tweeting your next conference, I encourage you to pay close attention to how tweeting affects your learning. If you feel it is a distraction, perhaps take notes during the lecture and then tweet afterwards, when you have more time summarize and synthesize the material. If you wonder about the veracity of a statement or if you are unclear about whether you are representing the speaker’s point, perhaps wait to send the tweet until you can confirm your doubts with the speaker him/herself.

Will Twitter completely obviate the need to attend conferences? I doubt it. There are many benefits, both tangible and intangible to being physically present: from engaging in discourse, to asking the speaker questions directly, networking with other conference participants and having fun with friends, new and old, in different locales.  But for those who cannot attend, with a bit of caution, Twitter can offer an invaluable avenue to be a part of the clinical dialogue.

For more on Twitter use at conferences, see these great sites:



References/Further Reading:

[1] Udovicich C, Barberi A, Perera K. Tweeting the meeting: A comparative analysis of an Australian emergency medicine conference over four years. J Emerg Trauma Shock 2016;9:28-31.

[2] Mishori R, Levy B, Donvan B. Twitter use at a family medicine conference: analyzing #STFM13. Fam Med. 2014 Sep;46(8):608-14.

[3] Wilkinson S, Bastro M, Perovic G, Lawrentschuk N, Murphy D. The social media revolution is changing the conference experience: analytics and trends from eight international meetings. BJU International 2015: 115(5):839-846.

[4] Logghe H, Maa J, Schwartz J. Twitter usage at Clinical Congress rises markedly over two years. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2013 Feb;98(2):22-4.

[5] S Avery Gromm, S Hammer, G Humphries. The age of the Twitter conference. Science 2016: 352(6292): 1404.

[6] MR Haas et al. #EMConf: utilizing Twitter to increase dissemination of conference content. Medical Education 2016; 50: 564-591.

[7]  Bert F, Paget DZ, Scaioli G. A social way to experience a scientific event: Twitter use at the 7th European Public Health Conference. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2016; 44: 130–133

[8] Roland D, May N, Body R, et al. Emerg Med J 2015;32:412–413.

[9] Stuntz R, Clontz R. An Evaluation of Emergency Medicine Core Content Covered by Free Open Access Medical Education Resources. Ann Emerg Med. 2016 May;67(5):649-653.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.12.020. Epub 2016 Feb 11.

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