What Can I Learn About Public Health in 140 Characters?


Twitter is all about the short message.  140 characters doesn’t allow for  nuance or technical nomenclature.  This would seem to make it useless for learning about complex public health topics like the latest scientific or medical research.  But it turns out that this short-format medium is the perfect complement to the classic long-format medium, the conference.


That’s right, the technical conference is on Twitter.  Most of us have very limited time and budget to go to conferences (or none at all).  So we agonize over which one to attend, knowing that we will miss out on so much breaking information by not being there.  And then when we get to our one conference, we discover that there are two simultaneous tracks that we want to attend, and again we have to choose one, knowing we will miss so much information.


In the past few years it has become increasingly common for many people attending conferences to live-Tweet the experience.  Now some conference organizers encourage this tweeting by creating an official conference hashtag, like #ASCO15 (for the American Society of Clinical Oncologists annual conference), so it is easy to follow all the tweets.


How do I find the hashtag for the conference I want to follow?

You can search Twitter for the name (or better, the abbreviation) of the conference you’re interested in.  If you don’t know the abbreviation, try using a search engine with the name of the conference and the word “hashtag”.  You can also go to the official website of the conference to see if they have posted a hashtag, like ASCO does for all its conferences (http://www.asco.org/about-asco/social-media) .


Not all conferences do this.  For example, the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference doesn’t list a hashtag on their webpage, but if you search on Twitter you will find people using #AAIC in tweets about the conference and the studies presented there.


Other organizations will use their regular hashtag for a conference as well.  The International Ebola Recovery Conference (https://ebolaresponse.un.org/recovery-conference) used the hashtag #ebolaresponse for both the conference and for continuing breaking news.

Ebola response

I missed a conference last year, can Twitter help me catch up?

Yes.  Twitter might be a very immediate media but, like all things on the Internet, what’s tweeted (generally) stays up.  If you know the hashtag you can search for just like you would for a conference that’s going on right now.

Some conferences will also take the extra step of collecting all of the tweets about an event and putting them into a Tumblr for easier reading.  This will filter out all the tweets like “Hey, I’m at #event, who wants lunch?”.  The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene does a great job of this for their 2014 conference (http://tropmed2014.tumblr.com/).  These post-conference Tumblrs are an example of what Clay Shirky calls the “publish, then filter” approach of the Internet.


OK, I’m following the #hashtag, now what?

Read the tweets!  Reading live tweets from a conference can be like getting your news through a firehose, but the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty good.  Usually you’ll get discussions of presentations and if everyone is lucky a link to either the slides of the presentation (depending on the conference) or the electronic version of the publication.

Another great thing that can come from following a conference hashtag is that you can find new people in your field to follow.  People who live tweet one conference are likely to live tweet other conferences, and you might discover new conferences you had never heard about.


Have you live-tweeted a health or scientific conference?  Tell us about it in the comments!


Shirky, Clay.  Here Comes Everybody, Penguin Books 2008.


7 thoughts on “What Can I Learn About Public Health in 140 Characters?

  1. It’s a great idea to use Twitter to follow health conferences in real time. Thanks for breaking down the process for those of us new to using Twitter. I rarely attend conferences for work and your post was a great reminder that there are other ways to access all of that information we may be afraid we’re missing out on. I know some companies will only let employees attend conferences if they give presentations on what they’ve learned. This is a good idea to disseminate the (more in depth) information internally. However, it can take time to assemble a presentation so colleagues might not be updated for weeks. In this day and age, we absolutely cannot wait that long.
    Although there are still barriers (financial, travel time) to physically attend conferences, Twitter makes the information shared much more accessible to everyone. Twitter can also be used to allow non-attending followers to actively participate in conferences remotely. Followers can tweet questions to moderators so presenters can answer them live. Twitter can be used to both push and pull public health information.
    This platform can apply to other scenarios too like community meetings or policy forums. Some people may not have the time or resources to attend in person, but they can still use Twitter to participate and stay up to date on events they care about.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a great article. I feel like people have gone crazy with the hashtags these days, so sometimes it’s hard to determine what’s a “real” hashtag that’s being used by a lot of people, and what’s just a hashtag for fun. I hope all conferences and organizations start pushing hashtags on their websites, because that would be a great way to keep tags consistent and streamline information.

  3. Hi Margot – Really excellent post – especially for someone like me who really had not grasped the hashtag idea. I like how you gave an attention getting opening – reminding us of the 140 character limit and asking how one could convey important public health info in that way. I liked the use of the thumbnail images to help guide me and remind me what you were writing about. And, I really liked your discussion about figuring out how to get valuable content by following the meetings via hashtags. I find myself quite impatient with reading through a seemingly disorganized array of people’s comments about a meeting, but I will give it a chance now. Your crisp explanation of how hashtags are used for conferences was very well done – if it had been longer I may have tuned out while reading, but it was just long enough to give the necessary information which was great. Especially because it was succinct and easy to read, I actually went to my twitter account and tried out the hashtags for the meetings you cited and saw how it all works. It gave me the idea to have youth use hashtags in the health programs I manage to post their progress or ideas and also have the medical students use a hashtag to give each other tips about how they presented different material around the country. I guess the key is coming up with a unique hashtag?
    By way of constructive critique, I have only two comments. First, (and I don’t know how to adjust this), I find the image at the top too big. I wish I knew how to adjust that because I like the idea of a main image – but the large size is distracting. Second, I just learned that you can add the link to a word in the text instead of typing in the whole link which can be a bit distracting while you read. When you are writing the post, you highlight the word or words that relate to the post – for example, “The International Ebola Recovery Conference” then you click the link button at the top and paste in the url. “The International Ebola Recovery Conference” will become the link to the url. I think it helps the reader have a smoother reading experience.
    Awesome job!

    • Liana,
      You are totally right that the top image is way too big. Another example of the importance of preview.
      Thanks for the tip on the embedded links rather than the whole URL. It will look much neater without all that http stuff.

  4. Hi, Margot. This is a great post – very informative and well written, yet simple enough for a Twitter novice (or near novice, anyway) to follow. I’ve always found hashtags slightly irritating in Twitter streams. Many people seem to use them to be funny and it was rather like telling readers which bit of the (very brief) post to pick up on, as if they couldn’t figure it out for themselves. I now realise that they are actually very useful – particularly for telling readers what to pick up on and follow! Another place you can find conference tweets collected is Storify.com

    • I’ve often been at conferences or meetings where the organisers are excitedly encouraging the audience to live tweet about the session. It’s sometimes a way to get questions for the speakers, too. It saves all that faffing around with the roving mic! If they’re live streaming the conference, they can even take questions from people who aren’t there in person this way.

  5. Fascinating read for health care professionals! I must admit, I suffer from “I was at the meeting, but couldn’t get to a that session…” problem. This is a really great post for helping people navigate large conferences with multiple tracks. I too, will give live tweeting a go at my next conference (or at least monitor it more closely. I wonder if anyone has seen meeting organizers use tweet polls with effectiveness, or if there are any tips learned from that? It would be a great way to engage the audience, and looks like you can do this using PollDaddy (http://www.twitip.com/create-free-polls-for-twitter-with-polldaddy/)

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