Social POV: Twitter for Patient Engagement

Since joining the social media landscape in 2006, Twitter has quickly become a ubiquitous part of our popular culture. Although it may be best known for witty one-liners, political arguments, and real-time breaking news, Twitter is surprisingly fertile ground for patient engagement.

What is Twitter Used For?

Each day, 500 million tweets are sent from every corner of the world. Unlike image-focused Instagram and relatively restriction-free Facebook, Twitter is unique in its enforcement of brevity. The original 140-character limit doubled to 280-characters in 2016, but the focus on succinct communication remains. Users can circumvent this limit by creating a series of tweets, sometimes referred to as a tweetstorm. Twitter ultimately incorporated a thread feature in 2017.

Known to be a platform for intense debate, tweets can be commented on, shared as retweets and sub-tweeted. Users also have the ability to create and share time-limited polls.

Images and video aren’t as popular on Twitter as they are on Facebook and Instagram, but they are certainly found in abundance on the platform. In 2016, Twitter introduced live streaming video functionality, including things like political debates, NFL football, and awards shows. Video is becoming more important on Twitter, with view counts skyrocketing. Video length, however, is restricted to 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Internal Twitter data shows that video view counts are steadily rising. – source


The omnipresent hashtag, which is now used across the web, owes its existence to Twitter. Trending hashtags are likely to be topics that go viral. Hashtags are also a handy way to organize and find content.

How Patients Use Twitter

For patients, Twitter is a place to connect with other patients, ask questions, and connect with a community. Twitter offers patients the unique opportunity to engage in a dialogue with physicians and researchers. It’s not uncommon to see physicians, researchers, and other healthcare professionals connecting with one another, as well as with patients, via hashtags like #medtwitter.

Twitter chats are another popular way for patients to engage and share stories. Most health-specific tweetchats center around a particular condition or topic and offer patients a chance to meet up virtually at regularly scheduled intervals. They typically involve a number of questions, asked by the chat’s host over the course of the planned time period (often an hour). Questions and their answers are often organized in some way and all are connected with the chat’s hashtag.

WEGO Health hosts the monthly #WEGOHealthChat for patients, centered around topics related to patient advocacy. Some condition-specific Twitter chats include #IBDchat, #chatMS, #dsma, and #creakychats. There are also a number of chats for the broad patient community as a whole, like #patientchat, #spooniechat, and #patientshavepower. Symplur maintains a great list of upcoming chats in the realm of healthcare, including patient chats and those geared more toward healthcare providers and researchers.

Who Uses Twitter?

Worldwide, Twitter currently has 326 million monthly active users. The number who are active on the platform daily has seen consistent year-over-year growth. The most recent data shows that daily active users are up by 9 percent year-over-year, but that growth rate has been slowing down.

The rate of growth of Twitter’s Daily Active Users (DAUs) is slowing, but overall growth of the platform remains steady. – source


The gender breakdown of Twitter users in the United States is fairly even, but slightly more women are using the platform. This breakdown doesn’t hold true globally, however, with international users more heavily weighted towards men.

The age breakdown for Twitter users finds that the 18-29 age group is the most active, with 40% of U.S. adults saying they use the platform, compared to 27% for 30-49, 19% for 50-64, and 8% for 65+.

Twitter users also tend to be more highly educated and affluent.

Demographic breakdown of Twitter users. – source


In the healthcare space, businesses are increasingly expected to have a presence on Twitter – from hospital systems to insurance companies to pharma. Some, like @PillPack, are using their accounts to create buzz and share stories. Others, like @Cigna, use it for rapid responses to public customer service issues.

But, just having a presence on Twitter isn’t enough. Nor is a large following. As with every social network, the key objective for brands is engagement.

Pharma brands have found a mixed degree of success when it comes to patient engagement on Twitter. Owen Health analyzed pharma Twitter accounts to measure engagement levels, taking into account likes, retweets, and replies while normalizing based on the number of followers and the volume of tweets.

The size of your following doesn’t determine the degree of engagement. – source


Twitter: Best Practices for Pharma Brands

The accounts with the most success in patient engagement on Twitter are those that make an effort to become a part of the communities they are trying to engage. Brands that succeed recognize that they are part of a conversation and work to foster dialogue.

As with Facebook and Instagram, one of the most successful ways to boost overall engagement is to partner with patient leaders already active on the platform.

Consider the following:
  • Share patient stories. Can you partner with a patient to tell an authentic story that would be of interest to your audience? Or, can you use your Twitter feed to highlight content already shared by a patient leader? Asking the permission of the patient first before sharing is a good idea.

Pfizer highlights a real patient’s story as a way to connect with other patients. – source

  • Show off your authentic side. Show the human side of your company. Introduce your followers to employees. Talk about research being done and highlight a researcher.

AbbVie introduces followers to one of their researchers in a very authentic way. – source

  • Try a poll. This is a way to promote engagement. Choose a relevant topic, or perhaps ask patients what kind of content they’d like to see from you.

Merck used Twitter’s poll feature for an educational quiz. – source

  • Consider the whole patient. Your connection to a patient is one small part of their lives as patients and as human beings. Acknowledging this can go a long way.

Takeda speaks to the whole patient in this tweet. – source

  • Invite patients to engage with one another. Can you start a Twitter chat? Or could you highlight an existing chat to encourage patients to connect with one another?
  • Respond with care. If your goal is more engagement, it should be obvious that you need to respond when patients make the effort to engage with you. Unless the tweet is racist, sexist, or threatening in some way, you need to respond. You can report tweets that you believe violate Twitter’s terms. You can, and should, also share with your followers a reminder of what you consider to be unacceptable behavior.

Engaging on Twitter

It has become an accepted idea in any customer interaction today that Twitter is a way to get a faster customer service response via a kind of public shaming. Companies that respond to these kinds of comments quickly, respectfully, and gracefully are rewarded. Those that don’t may see a swell of public outcry. Not responding or responding with a lack of tact is a surefire way to see overall patient trust decrease. Your instinct may be to respond privately to critical messages but when the initial message is public, you should first respond publicly before moving to a private forum. This shows transparency and respect and will prevent other users from piling on at your perceived lack of response. Responding quickly, publicly, and respectfully is one of the best things you can do when trying to boost engagement. It shows that you are willing to actually engage.

GSK had a fast and helpful response to a tweet about drug prices. – source

  • Don’t be afraid of being timely and/or lighthearted, but proceed with caution. Things move quickly in our culture today and Twitter is no exception. Jumping in on a fun and lighthearted trending hashtag isn’t a bad idea every once in a while. Just be sure that your tweet won’t be offensive to anyone. You can also consider commenting on a current trending story if you feel you can (and should) meaningfully contribute, but this is sensitive territory, especially when the story veers anywhere near the realm of politics or another controversial topic. Sanofi’s decision to respond via tweet when one of their medications came up in a trending story got people talking and saw them gain a number of new followers. In some cases, patients saw the move as a way of humanizing the brand, but a minority found the seemingly political tweet to be off-putting.

Sanofi’s potentially controversial tweet ultimately won them more praise than criticism. – source


Tweet to it!

Every social network offers life sciences companies a unique way to engage with patients. Twitter requires you to be nimble. One of the best ways to make sure your tweets get attention is to work directly with the patients who have their fingers on the pulse of patient communities.

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