How Nurses and Nurse Educators Are Using Social Media

From blogs to Twitter, social media can give nurses a greater voice.

    • May 24, 2010

“It’s like my daily CNN fix for nursing,” is how Terri Schmitt, B.S.N., M.S.N., an assistant professor at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri and self-confessed “social media addict” describes the Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative’s (INQRI) blog. The INQRI blog is one example of how nurses and nurse educators are using social media in the 21st Century. Updated almost daily, the blog features information on INQRI activities and grantees, grantees’ research and news related to INQRI’s work.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), INQRI generates, disseminates and translates research to understand how nurses contribute to quality patient care. The program launched the blog in August of 2008, but “it took us a while to really do anything with it,” says Heather Kelley, INQRI program associate. “We didn’t really understand the difference between a blog and a (traditional) Web site. We were taking a very passive approach, waiting for something to comment on instead of thinking about and looking for things to write about.”

What a difference a couple of years make. In April 2010, the INQRI blog had 454 visitors compared with 87 in April 2009. The blog took off in earnest in 2009 when INQRI leaders were planning their annual meeting. The program team decided to blog the meeting so that people who didn’t attend could follow the proceedings. They also tweeted from the conference. With video and photographs from the conference, they were able to create a multimedia experience for visitors to the blog and provide a real sense of the conference’s atmosphere.

Blogging about the conference helped build a following in two ways: several conference speakers were active bloggers themselves, whose readers visited the INQRI blog to find out about the conference presentations; and many people who read about the conference proceedings on the blog continued to visit it afterward to see what else INQRI blogged about.

Later that year, INQRI held a blog event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Institute of Medicine report, To Err Is Human. For two weeks in December, INQRI invited people who didn’t regularly blog to write and post guest blogs. Thirty-four blog entries were posted over the two weeks. INQRI engaged several guest bloggers who now come back regularly to visit the blog. Kelley says that she once relied on comments to gauge the popularity or success of the blog, but has learned over time that it’s an inaccurate measure. “I think that controversy is what really generates comments,” she says. “We don’t post on highly controversial subjects, but based on our analytics, we know we’re getting a lot of visitors.”

INQRI’s blog primarily features reports on program activities (including webinars and events), INQRI grantees’ work or activities, and events in the news that relate to grantees’ work. Tweets push out the blog and also address events, activities, research and news.

Other nurses are also using social media in exciting and innovative ways. One of them is Phil Baumann, B.S.N., R.N., considered by many to be a pioneer and a leader in encouraging nurses to use social media. Baumann, a former critical care nurse, is the force behind RNChat, Registered Nurses on Twitter.

Information Should Be Weightless

With more than 700 followers, RNChat is a place where R.N.s can network and discuss a range of issues related to nursing, from day-to-day work to domestic violence, clinical trials and intramuscular injection techniques. Some of the most popular topics include the nursing shortage, improving health care technology and nursing education.

Baumann created RNChat in part to encourage nurses to get more involved in social media. He first developed an interest in Twitter while working as a critical care nurse. “I got frustrated with how behind the health care community was when it came to communications and sharing information. Information should be weightless. A patient’s history and vital statistics should be readily available. You shouldn’t have to run around to collect that information.” He began thinking about how Twitter could be used in clinical settings and in 2009, developed a list of 140 Health Care Uses for Twitter, ranging from tissue recruitment to prescription management to exercise management and encouragement to micro-sharing of diagnostic results.

Baumann considers Twitter a radical and exciting departure from conventional communication and one that has remarkable flexibility and potential. “It’s like a wheel,” he says. “It’s fundamental technology. You can just roll a wheel, but you can also connect two or four wheels and you have a vehicle that can transport people and things.”

He notes that right now, Twitter is being used mostly externally rather than in health care systems and settings themselves, but there is great potential for additional applications. One place that Twitter and other social media are being used to advance health care is in the academy, including in an informatics class taught by Terri Schmitt at Southwestern Baptist University (SBU).

Engaging Nursing Students in Social Media

While SBU has been offering a nursing informatics course for seven years, in the last two years, it has been expanded to include social media. In fact, the course has been transformed. Schmitt requires all her students to do all their work for the class online, attend at least one live chat and create their own Twitter accounts and blogs. The final group projects for the course are put up on SlideShare. “It’s essential for nurses to understand and be familiar with social media,” Schmitt says. “The majority of people get their advice from the internet and as nurses, we need to know what is and isn’t a valid source of information. What’s more, it’s important to realize that, today, informatics is more than emergency medical records and HIPAA violations.”

Schmitt also believes strongly in encouraging nurses to use social media to share information and their ideas. “Nurses are the largest group of health care professionals and the largest group of health care educators. I had all these students doing wonderful work, but they were writing for an audience of one. By blogging they can showcase their work. I want to encourage more nurses to blog because the internet is where people go for health care information.”

Learning to use new technology, especially technology that is widely used by clients and patients is, to Schmitt, an important part of training to be a nurse. But she does see some resistance. “I like to say that social media is like White Castle,” she says. “You either love it or hate it, but in the end, you’ll develop an appreciation for it.” Schmitt also finds that her students are reaping unexpected rewards from their online experiences, “when they get comments on their blogs or their tweets get retweeted, it’s a testament to their depth of knowledge and recognition of work well done.”

Like Baumann and Kelley, Schmitt sees great potential for social media in nursing. She believes that to some extent, the technology may well still be in its infancy. “Social media gives us a place to discuss things openly,” she says. “It can be a place to design research studies and find solutions. It can give nurses a greater voice. This is where nurses can speak up about policy and health care practice and make change.”