THE BLOG

Why Nurses Need Twitter

04/07/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Co-authored by Candace W. Burton, PhD, RN, AFN-BC, AGN-BC, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Monica McLemore, PhD, MPH, RN, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

As scientists, early and mid-career academics, practicing nurses, and educators, we don't have a lot of free time. But we wouldn't be any of these things, nor be proficient at them, if we didn't keep in touch with the communities that undergrid everything we do. Twitter turns out to be the most powerful tool we have to do this.

We each joined Twitter because we found ourselves ranting in front of our computers, over some scientific misconstruction in the media. We wanted a place to put these thoughts. We didn't set out to gather followers, and we didn't set out to position ourselves as the authority on anything -- not even #nursing.

It seems that there are a lot of folks on Twitter doing the same.

We had no idea how much we were going to learn about the world, our country, our respective states, and even our home communities. As we flicked through what is called a "timeline" or TL, we started to discover how quickly news hits Twitter (sooner than any mainstream media), and moreover how fast Twitter users respond to news (more broadly, more vehemently, and more interestingly than in mainstream media). The speed and agility of Twitter -- 140 characters! Instantly published! Immediately searchable! -- mean that anybody can tap into the public consciousness, at any time.

As patient and community advocates, we can quickly find out the community-level response to news and events through hashtags (how you mark things on Twitter, with a '#' sign) like #DecisiveStorm, #PurviPatel, #MarteseJohnson, and #HerDreamDeferred. Because of our professional and clinical interests, we follow minority justice activists, social scientists, feminists, LGBTQI activists, bench scientists, and public health officials, as well as colleagues and experts in all of these fields. From hashtags, we find new followers, and with them new perspectives on lots of issues. As nurses, feminists, scientists, and activists, we thought we were reasonably well informed about the social issues around us. Enter #fastailedgirls, #whyIstayed, #hollaback, and #TERF.

With years of clinical experience as a psychiatric mental health nurse (Shattell), emergency department nurse (Burton), and public health nurse (McLemore), we're not that easy to surprise -- well played, Twitter.

As we learned to use Twitter more effectively, we felt more culturally competent with our patients, students, and community partners. For example, one of us' (Burton) main areas of scholarship are in intimate relationships and the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young adults. The terms used by teens and tweens change about as often as nurses drink coffee, and if you don't know what adolescents and young adults are talking about, you can't care for them effectively. Dr. Burton has learned more than she will ever need to know about #Kimye, #onfleek, and things like #eyeballing -- and now, so have the rest of us!

Literally by opening Twitter from our smartphones on the way to the car or the train, we can find out what our students and patients are going to be talking about.

Twitter is basically the world's largest anthropological database. Want to know what African-American women writers think about #Ebola? You can find out in about three seconds. Having trouble crafting the sex/gender demographic choices for a survey? Tweet your proposed language and request feedback, hashtagging appropriately. Not sure how to approach #safersex with your #LGBTQI patients? Plenty of "tweeple" can help.

We're not suggesting Twitter is always the best source of information, but if you need feedback on whether or not what you just said is incredibly culturally insensitive and why - -you will find out. So, first master the art of "lurking" on Twitter -- by which we mean follow lots of folks you're interested in for awhile and see how they write about things, how people approach issues, and what are acceptable and unacceptable responses. The last thing you want is to be labeled a #troll or get yourself #blocked. Just be quiet and listen a bit -- it's not the responsibility of folk different from you to teach you about their lives, but it's your responsibility to be respectful and try to learn.

One of the most common complaints we hear from #nurses about Twitter is they can't "keep up." This is neither possible nor desirable. Read what you can, when you can; participate in chats, learn to use hashtags correctly, and treat it more like sipping from a fountain rather than drinking from a fire hose.

Final word of advice: decide early if you want a professional or personal Twitter presence, or both. Consider if you don't want to be readily identified because you do sensitive work, or would rather not have your students know you had to ask for help understanding what just happened in clinical. Plus you may want a separate account for times you just want to say: "OMG does this unit not have saltines?!" #nurseproblems". Tweet us @DrCBurton, @MonaShattell, @mclemoremr; we're listening.