I will be writing in the next few days about some of the Pharma and Biotech winners and losers at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) that just finished in Washington D.C.

However, what was noticeable to me was the disappointing lack of Twitter conversation from the 18,000 cancer scientists at the meeting.

Part of this may reflect the culture of AACR, where it is forbidden to take photographs, record or transmit information. “Thou shalt not tweet” may be thought of as a logical extension of this.  It’s certainly not easy to distil complex science into 140 characters.

However, some people did tweet from the meeting and a quick look at the Symplur analytics for the #AACR meeting hashtag, shows the following:

  1. Highest number of tweets came from Dr Naoto Ueno (@teamoncology), a breast cancer medical oncologist from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who was not even at the meeting, but clearly would have liked to have been.
  2. The second highest number of tweets came from Dr Philippe Aftimos (@aftimosp), a hematologist/oncologist from Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels.  Philippe wins my award for the most outstanding social media contribution from AACR 2013.  He shared insights throughout the meeting in English; I could not do that in a foreign language.  Outstanding!
  3. Also on the AACR twitter leader board was patient advocate/cancer survivor AnneMarie Ciccarella (@chemobrainfog) who presented a poster at the meeting on the power of social media for breast cancer advocacy (#BCSM). Blog readers may recall AnneMarie and other patient advocates did a phenomenal job of live tweeting #SABCS last year.

There were many others too numerous to mention who live-tweeted from AACR this year, and my post is not intended to showcase some people over others, but offer my impression that cancer scientists have not embraced social media in the way that cancer doctors and patient advocates have at clinical meetings such as ASH and ASCO.

There was no public display of Tweets or a conference Twitter Board, as there is now at leading medical meetings organized by ECCO, ESMO, AUA or ASH where delegates can watch meeting tweets in real time in the common areas.  A heavily tweeted session will attract new attendees while it is ongoing.

At these meetings, I have often seen people go to sessions based on how interesting the tweets are.  I follow the “law of two feet” that says if the tweets are more interesting in another session, time to get up and move there.  It’s funny to watch others do the same thing and converge on a room at the same time.

While watching the Twitter board at ECCO or ESMO, I have been asked how to sign up for Twitter in order to follow the conversation (and hopefully be part of it). There was no twitter board at AACR to encourage such behaviour.

Those attending the ASCO annual meeting, will know the unofficial Tweet-up attracts a large party.  The AACR unofficial tweetup had just 5, and did not as far as I am aware even merit a RT from @AACR!

To highlight the enormous gap between cancer researchers and cancer physicians when it comes to social media, one only has to look at the annual meetings of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and American Urological Association (AUA).

In recent years both ASCO and AUA have offered a workshop on how oncologists or surgeons can use social media in their practice.  It is increasingly important as a tool for sharing and communicating information.  There was no workshop at AACR on how cancer researchers could use social media to collaborate or share their research.

Why is this important you may ask?  The reason that I am taking the time to write this is that if cancer researchers want the public to support the funding of research, then they need to communicate the value of what they do.

Last year, leading cancer researchers, including a past president of AACR and several Professors of Medicine, tried to obtain 25,000 signatures for a White House Petition in support of maintaining the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) given the important role it plays in funding cancer research.  AACR decided not to support this initiative and the petition sadly fell short by a few hundred signatures of the number needed to force an official response.

This year during their annual meeting, AACR organized a Rally for Medical Research (#RallyMedRes) to protest against the forced NIH funding cuts that were implemented as a result of the failure of the United States Congress to agree a budget deficit program.

An expensively organized rally with a stage that resembled a rock concert preached to the converted on the need to spread the word on the value of medical research. Whether it will have any effect in reversing NIH cuts remains to be seen.  I fear it was too little too late and an attempt to metaphorically close the stable door after the horse has already bolted.

If cancer researchers want the public to fund their research, in my view one of the things they need to do is communicate the value of the scientific research they conduct.  One way to do this is to embrace social media more, particularly at meetings such as AACR, where there is the opportunity to share information with a worldwide audience.

Next year at AACR, I hope we will see a Twitter board at the entrance to the meeting and more cancer researchers encouraged to participate in the conversation and share their thoughts and experiences.  AACR could learn a lot from medical oncologists and patient advocates on how to embrace the true power of social media.

 

 AACR 2013 Cancer Scientists fail to embrace Social Media

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