I joined Facebook back in 2004, only months after the site was launched. The internet, though I didn’t realize it at a time, was still a very disconnected place. Social media was fundamentally in its infancy, with Facebook joining only a few other social networking sites (MySpace and Friendster come to mind). Twitter and many other social media sites were just thoughts at that stage. Aside from Facebook, the only way I connected with other people was through AOL Instant Messenger, if even that.

Eight years and some 900 million Facebook users later, social media has exploded onto the scene. Rare are the websites that DON’T have a share button that allows users to share the site with users on many different social media outlets. Early on, I used Facebook exclusively to keep in touch with close friends. In contrast, I created this blog to disseminate information. Soon after I started blogging, I discovered Twitter and the medical community that was burgeoning there. I then began to explore using social media for learning more about healthcare and medicine.

People are slowly recognizing the vast potential of social media, especially in the context of healthcare. Not only is it poised to be an important tool in clinical practice, but also in training new generations of physicians. There is a hashtag #meded for a Twitter conversation that takes place weekly, where participants discuss medical education, any problems observed, and potential solutions. It, along with the #hcsm (Healthcare Social Media) Twitter conversation, represents a great forum to propose innovative ways to improve the field of medicine and medical education. I think for students, especially, it is an incredible asset. One can get a very broad perspective of medical education in general, and can reach out to others who are encountering similar problems and situations on their way to a career in medicine.

Speaking for myself, I am pre-med. When I will shed the “pre” part is unknown at this time, but that’s an entirely different topic. I am working, but I am still thinking about entering medical school down the road. I love Twitter, and I use it in part to connect with doctors and students, and to keep abreast of issues that are going on in both the education side and the clinical practice side. I tend to lurk in the background for both the #meded and #hcsm conversations, observing and learning, but not directly participating. I have learned a great deal, but this is information that will probably come in handy further down the road, when I officially start on the road to becoming a physician. What would be nice right now is a similar community for pre-meds.

There is a somewhat more cohesive community that exists on the Internet to provide a resource for pre-meds, as well as medical students and practicing physicians and other healthcare professionals to pose questions and get answers: Student Doctor Network. This is something that has been around for years, and many students have embraced. I have used this multiple times and I think it’s fantastic. However, it is somewhat static, compared to Twitter at least. Yes, people post answers, but it’s not quite the same. Twitter has the feel of a conversation among friends. The rapid-fire exchange of questions and answers feels more natural, and more human in some ways.

Now of course there is a community of sorts on Twitter. There are many pre-meds who have taken to Twitter for one reason or another, and who sometimes connect with other pre-meds along the way. Yes, we all come together to bond, complain, rage, and sometimes exult about classes, the MCAT, and medical school applications. Yet it would be nice to have a way to discuss issues that plague pre-meds from freshman year to the post-graduate years. Ideally the conversation could be fostered and archived under a hashtag. The resulting posts/tweets can be accessed readily later.

There are so many questions that arise for pre-meds even before they reach college. Which school should I apply to? Should I opt for a combined BA/MD program, or go the “traditional” route? In college, the questions can range from the general (What should my GPA be? What about my MCAT? Where should I do community service? Which doctor should I shadow?) to the painfully specific (What the heck is a racemic mixture? How much acid-base chemistry can one expect on the MCAT? What is the average GPA of students accepted to medical school X?). Pre-med is a label that encompasses a wide range of students from at least the age of 17 or 18 to those who are often in their mid to late 20s, if not older (as is the case for many non-traditional students). A social media community dedicated to pre-med issues would be a wonderful way to not only allow these questions to be answered and grievances aired, but it represents a great opportunity for mentoring of younger students by older ones who have had more experience. Having pre-medical advisers, medical school admissions staff, and medical school professors potentially join these conversations would add much needed perspective about what lies on the other side of that seemingly impervious wall called medical school admission.

I’ve been talking about Twitter quite a bit, because that’s what I tend to use most of the time, but other social media tools can be used as well. Facebook’s potential as a teaching tool is being explored in the context of medical education. However, there are some who have reservations with regard to its use in this context, especially if educators are involved, as outlined in this great blog post by Anne Marie Cunningham of Cardiff University in the UK. Blogging, though considered antediluvian by some nowadays, represents another opportunity to detail experiences and forge bonds with others who are in similar situations, and get answers from those who have walked down the same path.

Think of how great it might have been for you to have a community right at your fingertips, where most (if not all) of your pre-med questions can be answered, and readily at that? It’s something that I definitely wished I had early on. While SDN has its benefits, at least on Twitter, there is a greater sense of openness and trust that enhances the learning experience in that context. I have communicated with students and doctors, and they have been wonderful sources of insight. I consider many of them to be friends and invaluable sources of information. It would be wonderful to see universities embrace social media as a powerful source of information and a teaching tool not only for pre-meds, but for all students. Social media participation should be encouraged, but it would be nice to see classes being offered to students that taught them about using social media wisely and managing their online reputation. Perhaps professors can get in on the act and provide information to their students on the social media groups, sites, and hashtags where conversations about topics that are being covered in their class. The possibilities are endless.

Thoughts? Comments?