Editorial: All 'atwitter' about social networking

Social networking sites are being explored as tools for medical education and communication. Internet and SMS technologies increasingly will play a role in the professional lives of doctors, says Ophthalmology Times' medical editor.

Key Points

"You must be mistaken," was my reply.

"Yes, you are."

"You are, too."

"Am not." (As you can see, my debating skills are prodigious.)

My certainty derived from my policy to strictly avoid this kind of Internet site. On a typical business day, I receive about 200 e-mails as it is, and I have zero interest in spending more time online. Also, although some people like to update the world on all aspects of their lives, including what they are wearing and making for dinner, my belief is that there is nothing wrong with a little privacy. So my policy is to avoid those things like the plague (or at least the swine flu), and I have studiously endeavored to keep my profile extremely low.

My informant's certainty came from observing photos of me on this site. To settle the issue, I "Googled" my name and discovered a mere 1.53 million entries. Not all the pages were about me, however. Other Peter McDonnells include a movie producer, a trial lawyer with a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies, an Irish football coach (Armagh is the team), and a porn star. "How potentially embarrassing," I thought. "Someone might 'Google' my name and think I'm a lawyer!"

A sobering experience

Clicking around the pages to see what was out there about me was sobering. Photos, my curriculum vitae, a Web site that promised to reveal whether I ever had been disciplined by a state medical board, the fact that I donated to my daughter's school for her after-prom party 2 years ago, even videos of me speaking. On and on it went.

"For $29," my friend from California told me recently, "I can get a copy of your credit report."

Satisfied that my Internet footprint was anything but miniscule, and never even making it to Facebook, I logged off.

More than marketing

My belief had been that, with the obvious exception of the Ophthalmology Times Web site, which includes my columns, there was practically nothing of great significance to ophthalmic professionals on the Internet or on these "social network" sites. Most of what I had seen so far consisted of thinly disguised advertisements for physicians' practices, with emphasis on the LASIK, botulinum toxin type A, and similar market segments. These social network sites, to me, had all the emphasis on social (if you know what I mean).

But it turns out that Twitter, one form of this phenomenon, now is being explored as a medical education and communication tool (http://newsblog.mayoclinic.org/2009/04/22/mayo-clinic-to-hold-tweetcamp-ii-on-medical-use-of-twitter/) . Discussing scientific papers, answering medical students' questions during live surgery, and other applications of this technology are being explored at the Mayo Clinic and other institutions.

So, probably, Internet and SMS technologies and sites increasingly will play a role in our professional lives. Perhaps we'll spend less time traveling to meetings to deliver or listen to lectures and better use that time watching and communicating with each other-perhaps in real time-as we learn about new procedures and new therapies.

Please don't waste your time looking at anything related to me on the Internet (except, of course, on the Ophthalmology Times site, http://www.OphthalmologyTimes.com/) . But just to head off any conjecture regarding an apparent resemblance to the porn star, I want to state on the record that I have never had a moustache. And since I started working out more conscientiously, I'm in much better shape than that guy.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu