In a world where half of medical tweets are inaccurate, could Twitter be radiology’s saving grace?

Twitter holds the potential to disseminate bite-sized snippets of medical information to a diverse audience with little effort, but radiologists aren’t using the micro-blogging platform to its full capacity, according to research published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Because social sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace are so universal, health professionals can use their widespread reach to publicize accurate, scientifically backed data to users who otherwise might not have access to such information, first author Ioannis Seimenis, PhD, and colleagues wrote in JACR. And that’s important—seeing as how a 2015 study found that half of medical tweets posted to professional accounts contained false information.

“Online social media, social networking sites or microblogs have emerged as rapidly growing mechanisms to exchange personal and professional information,” the authors wrote. “Social media have also created networked communication channels that facilitate interactions and allow information to proliferate within academic communities.”

Microblogging sites like Twitter—which Seimenis et al. called social media’s most powerful news tool for medical professionals—are the most concise and dynamic ways to communicate health information, the authors said. 

For their study, Seimenis and co-authors scanned Twitter for reactions to x-ray mammography screening programs, which are widely accepted as diagnostically necessary but can hike a patient’s risk for radiogenic breast cancer.

“Radiation-induced breast cancer incidence and mortality from x-ray mammography screenings are impacted by many factors, such as dose variability from screening programs and resultant diagnostic workup, initiation age, screening frequency and breast size,” the authors said. “It is well-documented that the benefits of screening significantly outweigh the radiogenic breast cancer risk.”

Still, an annual 100,000 screenings of middle-aged and older women result in an average 125 breast cancers and 16 deaths.

Seimenis and colleagues explored the informational and opinion trends about screening mammography-related radiation exposure through Twitter. All relevant tweets within a three-year period, collected using keywords like “mammo” and “radiation," were classified according to user type, content and context.

The researchers identified 427 tweets generated by 329 unique users. The majority of tweets came from non-professional accounts, with just 8 percent tied to scientific organizations or higher education institutions. 

Seimenis et al. found that Twitter users as a whole didn’t seem unsatisfied with mammography due to its projected radiation risks—but most favorable posts stemmed from private companies and organizations. Just 17 percent of positive tweets came from the general public, the authors reported, while 62 percent of unfavorable tweets were sent by the same demographic.

“The percentage of people having an unfavorable attitude toward radiation exposure in mammography is potentially quite higher, considering that a recent survey revealed that only 38 percent of participants were aware that mammography involves radiation exposure,” the team wrote. 

Still, they said, communicating the mammography risk-to-benefit balance via Twitter comes with a low risk from the academic perspective, as long as health practices make a more concentrated effort to be active on social sites. Radiologists may need to put in extra time, the authors wrote, because they have less patient interaction than other specialists.

“Helping nonacademic audiences understand scientific topics can be challenging,” Seimenis and colleagues said. “However, scientists using social media perceive numerous potential advantages, and focused studies have demonstrated that Twitter can constitute an effective tool for broadcasting scientific information. The current study provides a baseline to compare future tweets concerning the radiation burden associated with screening mammography.”