A Nurse's Guide to Twitter

Written by Paul McNamara

Have you ever heard someone say something like, "Twitter doesn't interest me – I don't care what Justin Bieber had for breakfast"? Those people speak that way because they don't understand the difference between personal, official and professional use of Twitter or social media more generally.

Personal Use

Personal use of social media is where you share photos of your holidays with family and friends on services like Facebook or Instagram. If you happen to be interested in what Justin Bieber had for breakfast, you might follow him on Instagram or Twitter and see what he has to share with the world (it's OK: we won't judge you – it's your choice).

Official Use

Official use of social media is where a company or organisation presents their brand and shares information online, like the Ausmed Education Twitter account, for example: @ausmed.

Professional Use

Professional use of social media is based on your area of expertise and interests. This use of social media allows you to share information with and interact with other individuals and organisations that have the same interests.

I'll list a few of the nurses and midwives who are using Twitter in this way further down, but first I want to do a quick hard sell in answer to the question you might be thinking of already – Twitter: What's in it for nurses and midwives?

Twitter: What's in it for nurses and midwives?

"Twitter is not a technology. It's a conversation. And it's happening with or without you."

This is a quote attributed to Charlene Li – you'll find her on Twitter. Is there any need for nurses and midwives to participate in conversations with each other, other health professionals and/or the general public about what we do, what we value, who we are? To borrow a quote from Jane Caro (you'll find her on Twitter too), social media allows nurses and midwives unmediated access to public conversations for the first time in history. Empowering stuff.

Twitter puts you within reach of over 270 million people who are active each month. There are now over 500 million tweets sent every day. There are a lot of conversations going on out there. Obviously you're not going to read every tweet or follow ever person, but amongst this traffic you are bound to find people who share your passion for nursing, education or research.

A democracy of information

There isn't much in the way of hierarchies on Twitter. You can find yourself answering a question from a student nurse in Perth one minute, and the next minute sharing information with a professor of nursing in London. Twitter has a tone that's not unlike the banter you hear at nurses stations: it's work-related, but respectful and usually friendly.

Twitter @ events

Twitter is fantastic for taking the content of conferences beyond the walls of a conference. Nearly all health care conferences have their own Twitter hashtag for this very reason. Not convinced? Please read this example of conference Tweeting:

By reading this example I guarantee that you will learn 4 things in 5 minutes:

  1. How obesity works
  2. How Twitter at a healthcare conference works
  3. How aggregation tools can add value to Twitter content
  4. How nurses can be simultaneously professional, generous, incisive and funny.

As with conference Tweeting, if you have an education session you want to spread beyond the walls of the workshop, twitter can allow information to be shared, amplified. I once conducted a workshop with four people in attendance; the workshop resources (web links, mostly) shared via Twitter had an audience that was in the thousands. Twitter costs nothing yet it was able to make the information traditionally only available to my immediate audience available to thousands.

Getting Started

You should Create a Twitter account first.

Engage in a Scheduled Twitter Discussion

There are planned Twitter discussions, that is discussions with a designated time and topic, that are known as "Twitter Chats". The chats are a fast-faced, fun way to learn and contribute to the contest of ideas in subjects of interest. Check out this list of healthcare Tweet Chats to see what's coming up in the next few days. Visit the page a few time over the next couple of weeks, the list gets updated daily.

Twitter is a microblogging platform that restricts each Tweet to 140 characters or less. This means that scanning through each Tweet is like scanning through dot points. This makes it a quick and lively way to gather and share information. Perfect for the time-poor (that's pretty-much all of us, isn't it?). Can you get across meaningful information in short, sharp tweets? Yes, and to prove it the remainder of this article is presented in Tweet-sized chunks!

Make a choice: will you have an official, personal or professional Twitter account? Don't mix it up. Nurses know about boundaries, right?

On your professional twitter account you're not representing an organisation, but are primarily talking about work-related stuff.

Short names and concise tweets are good. Twitter = Brevity Central

Struggling to decide on a name? Get creative, e.g. a nerdy mental health nurse might be @MHnerse

Don't use your workplace name/initials unless you're 100% sure you're representing your employer rather than your professional self.

Think about how you'll describe yourself in your Twitter bio. Do you need to name your employer? It might be easier if you don't.

Twitter bios accommodate a bit of personality along with a description of you/your interests.

Re bio: maybe better not to say "lost virginity to a rockstar", but "enthusiastically supporting musicians" would be OK :-).

Still nervous re the name/bio thing? You'll get away with being anonymous, but why? On the run? Witness protection program?

Also, don't use lock caps when tweeting. It is like YOU ARE SHOUTING. It's rude. Nurses and midwives are professional, right?

Now. When you're ready, announce your arrival to the Twitterverse. No pressure: channel Neil Armstrong.

Next up you'll want to start following some people, otherwise your Twitter feed will be bare, and you will get sad, lonely and bored :-(

Who to follow? It depends on your interests. Use the Twitter search function to search for your areas of interest.

Other ideas on who to follow: your nursing college/journal, your union, your local health services, your colleagues, your heroes.

Twitter is not like Facebook. It is perfectly acceptable, not at all stalker-ish, to follow a complete stranger.

Twitter is not like Facebook. It is perfectly acceptable, not at all rude to unfollow somebody (eg: if their tweets don't interest you)

Twitterisms you'll need to know

Read more about the twitterisms here: http://meta4RN.com/FF

The mighty #hashtag

Now, about hashtags... don't be intimidated. You can use Twitter happily with never using one in your whole life, BUT...

Eg: even if you had the most incisive political tweet ever created, QandA viewers wouldn't know about it without the #QandA hashtag.

So, what to Tweet about? Anything that you think is relevant to people who may share all or some of your interests.

Remember: the conventions of professional communication are long-established: letters, email etc. Why change it on Twitter?

Any surprises or comments about the social media guidelines?

The guidelines are pretty common-sense stuff. Maybe this flowchart is all we need.

The easiest way to learn Twitter is to follow people who have already learned Twitter. Stick with it - it'll click in.

Do unto others. #TwitterTips