Twittering for Health

Libraries for Nursing Bulletin Vol 30(2)

Sian Aynsley,
Information Skills Trainer
South London Healthcare NHS Trust – Queen Elizabeth Woolwich
Healthcare Library,
Education Centre
Stadium Road, London, SE18 4QH
Tel: 0208 836 6742


The social networking/micro-blogging website Twitter has become a very popular resource in recent years, and is being utilised more and more for professional purposes. A small-scale research project called ‘Twittering for Health’ was carried out to measure the impact of Twitter in the health/medical libraries sector. The purpose of this article is to share the results of the project and to share experiences of using Twitter from a health library perspective. Ten ‘top tips’ for using Twitter in libraries are also provided.


These days it seems as though everybody has something to say about Twitter. The social networking and micro-blogging website is loathed as much as it is loved and it generates strong opinions even in people who have never used it. In the Healthcare Library at Queen Elizabeth Woolwich (QE) we were curious to see what all the fuss was about and our use of Twitter began as something of an experiment in the summer of 2009. It grew into a small-scale research project which was then presented at the annual London-based NHS/HE Partnership Conference in November 2009.

Twitter: what’s it all about?

Twitter is best described as a free online messaging service based on the simple question ‘what are you doing?’. The responses to this question can only be 140 characters long and are known as ‘tweets’ which are then shared with all the other Twitter accounts following your account. Twitter has become a household name mainly for the number of famous personalities using it from comedians to actors to politicians but what is especially interesting to the health libraries world is the growing participation of Twitter by organisations and bodies involved in healthcare such as the BMA, NHS Choices and the World Health Organization. Those concerned with disseminating health information have also jumped on the Twitter bandwagon such as PubMed and the Wellcome Trust, as well as more general information and library services like the British Library, JISC and Eduserv.

So just what are all these people and organisations using Twitter for? A quick glance at any Twitter account will reveal the website is being used for anything from sharing what one had for breakfast this morning to organising political protests. From a professional standpoint the most interesting uses of Twitter are for current awareness, link sharing and networking. A range of tools have been devised for these purposes and many of the innovations on Twitter were created by those using it, rather than developers employed by Twitter (some of these will be described in the ‘Top Twitter Tips’ section below). Here in the Healthcare Library at QE we use Twitter mainly to advertise resources, training courses, events and activities taking place in the library. We follow mainly health and library related organisations, a few publishers and people who tweet on health, library and information topics.

Twittering for Health

Curiosity about how other libraries, medical schools and organisations involved in healthcare were using Twitter prompted the ‘Twittering for Health’ research project, which involved a short questionnaire advertised via Twitter and the JISC LIS-WEB2 lis-serv. There were only 10 responses so the results are limited but give some indication as to how Twitter is being used. All respondents were regular or infrequent users of Twitter, 8 out of the 10 were library service providers, one was an education provider and one was ‘other’. Most of the respondents started to use Twitter out of curiosity or at the recommendation of a friend or colleague rather than being prompted by user demand. Organisations that use Twitter also use other web 2.0 technologies, mostly blogs, wikis, social bookmarking sites (such as Delicious), other social networking sites (like Facebook) and RSS feeds. Podcasts, YouTube and Flickr are also used, but to a lesser degree and none of the respondents reported using mashups. Twitter was reported as being used mainly by the respondents for link-sharing, networking (mostly socially) and staying up-to-date with topics in health. As far as evaluating the impact of Twitter on their organisations, few of the respondents reported monitoring their use of the service but most of the responses indicated a mix of tracking the number of followers, interaction with other Twitter users and informal feedback. None of the respondents reported using formal evaluation techniques to monitor Twitter use. The full results of the survey can be viewed here:

Top Twitter Tips!

A Twitter account is completely free and it only takes about five minutes to register and start tweeting. This sounds simple but Twitter can be a bewildering experience to the first-time user and it takes a bit of practice to get used to the site. Based on our experience of using Twitter, here are 10 ‘top tips’ to help you make the most of your Twitter account:

  • Registering
    • Choose your Twitter account name carefully to enable other Twitter users to find you easily. Add as much information as possible to your profile so others know who you are and what you are about. Advertise your account to others using the format:
  • Professional or Personal?
    • It is common for tweeters to have two accounts: one for personal use and another for professional. If you do tweet professionally for your organisation be extra careful about what you say or share and remember who you are representing!
  • Following
    • The people or organisations you follow really say a lot about yourself or your organisation and give others an indication of what you are about so be picky and don’t follow others just because they are following you.
  • Networking
    • Find Twitter accounts to follow by looking at other Twitter accounts belonging to people or groups you are already following. Here are a few nurse related groups to get you started: @theRCN, @Wiley_Nursing, @NursingTimes
  • Interacting
    • Interact with other Twitter users by responding to their tweets – be sure to include their Twitter name within your tweet preceded by the @ symbol (@theRCN) or use the ‘Reply’ link next to their tweet. You can also send direct messages to accounts that are following you that won’t be seen by the rest of the Twitter world.
  • Retweeting
    • Retweeting is a really quick way of spreading news fast. Find a tweet you like, click on the ‘Retweet’ link next to it and the tweet will be posted on your account to all your followers.
  • Link shortening
  • Hashtags
    • Look out for hashtags (ex: #welovethenhs) to follow a particular discussion and share ideas. Just click on the hashtag to see who else has tweeted about it or type the hashtag into your tweet to join the debate!
  • Lists
    • Lists are employed by Twitter users to organise their contacts into groups and share information of relevance to that group. Two examples of lists relating to medical libraries are @healthlibraries and @healthlibrarians.
  • Updating
    • Keep your Twitter account updated regularly. This does not need to take much time! Spend 2-3 minutes a couple of times a week writing a couple of tweets, replying to others or retweeting.

Twitter is by no means a magic pill and it isn’t always plain sailing. Our foray into the world of Twitter has recently been derailed somewhat by our Trust’s decision to block Twitter as a “social networking” site. We are currently attempting to get Twitter reinstated on the Trust network as a valid professional resource but it is not seen as a priority and progress is slow. There are many organisations across the UK currently facing the same problem and it is clear that education is needed on the organisational and professional benefits of Twitter. The kind of communication pioneered by Twitter is here to stay, even if Twitter itself is replaced by some other company in the future. It is really only by using Twitter that you can fully understand it and if you do decide to give Twitter a go, please follow us and let us know how you get on!



Cain Miller, C. (2009) ‘Who’s driving Twitter’s popularity? Not teens’, New York Times, August 25

Johnson, S. (2009) ‘How Twitter will change the way we live’, Time, June 5

Kleffman, S. (2009) ‘Health pros atwitter over tweeting’, Contra Costa Times, July 27

Mann, B. (2009) ‘Gary Linehan’s We Love the NHS campaign shows the political power of Twitter’ The First Post, August 14

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