Sarah Dinsdale grew up hearing both her maternal and paternal grandmothers tell stories about life in nursing residences in the 1960s. The two seasoned RNs told her about spending their early careers living in dormitories attached to hospitals, and about climbing down a gutter to sneak out for the weekend. But mostly, they told her about time spent in the dorm with other young nurses, socializing and learning from one another. “That’s how knowledge was shared for them,” Dinsdale notes.
Now in her third year of nursing at Western University, Dinsdale is entering a very different era in the profession, where busy lives and more autonomous work conditions make it tougher to exchange knowledge and ideas face-to-face. But she believes nurses are recreating those residence atmospheres online.
“#Social media is where it really clicks,” she says. “It provides a connection to real people in any geographic area and allows you to find information…from your peers.”
Since their inception in the early- to mid-2000s, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have attracted hundreds of millions of active users worldwide. From fueling social movements, to providing a virtual link with politicians, artists and the public, they have changed the way the world communicates in the digital age. They have also become increasingly important tools for organizations such as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) to connect with members and to spread the voice of the profession to the public.
Much has been written about the potential pitfalls for health professionals on social media (most notably patient privacy concerns), but Dinsdale insists that, if used appropriately, social media platforms can be invaluable resources. A self-professed “social media geek,” she says she’s only recently realized the opportunities for professional advancement available online.
Twitter, in particular, has connected her to a huge online nursing community, and allowed her to engage with established RNs in all sectors. She regularly tweets to nursing leaders, and participates in health-related ‘Twitter chats,’ moderated online discussions over a variety of topics, including Alzheimer’s as one example. This two-way, horizontal communication – instead of traditional one-way, top-down communication – is part of social media’s appeal, she says. It’s not a lecture, but a conversation.
Dinsdale, 24, is part of a young generation of nurses who grew up online. “I’ve never really known a time without the internet, and that’s a reality for me and my classmates,” she notes. “It will be this generation of nurses…that will shape the future of social media (within the profession).”
RNAO’s voice on social media has been getting louder. Led by web and social media editor Neil Halper, RNAO surpassed the 10,000 mark in Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers this year, up from 3,300 Facebook likes and less than 1,000 Twitter followers in 2011.
“Social media channels are often the first two-way interaction a person has with an organization,” says Halper, suggesting it wasn’t until recently that individuals could communicate with an organization in this manner. “Having a strong presence with relevant content will get people to hit that ‘like’ or ‘follow’ button and begin interacting with you.”
Using social media, RNAO has helped advance important issues like reinstating health services for refugee claimants (refugeehealth), putting an end to medical tourism (banmedicaltourism), and has established itself as an influential voice on a number of issues and campaigns. Staying consistently active on social media keeps RNAO at the forefront of these topics, and complements the association’s work on a variety of clinical issues, such as elder abuse and nurses’ important role in identifying and helping to prevent it.
At a time when news spreads in seconds, rather than hours or days, social media connects people in real time to what’s going on with RNAO. Halper and other members of RNAO’s communications team have “live-tweeted” major announcements from the association’s own events and policy announcements at Queen’s Park.
Constructing a strategic image online is something all professionals in the digital age should consider, says Richard Booth, an assistant professor in nursing at Western University, who actively researches social media and health informatics.
“Branding is something we all do,” he says. “Why do we have business cards with our status and degrees on them? Why do we have little signatures on our email? We are constantly branding ourselves.”
LinkedIn – a site marketed as the world’s largest professional network – is an obvious venue to brand yourself. Yet this can be extended to more personal platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by having a keen eye for the image you project on these media. Booth says it’s now impossible to separate your personal and professional lives on social media. Even if you try, those lives will eventually collide, and you’d better be sure they’re compatible, he warns.
Although concerning for some, that blurring of personal and professional has its perks, Booth says. “I have students who’ve realized people will be looking at them online, so they can give themselves a competitive advantage,” he says. “They shape their career online so when they finish (school), they have an online representation as good as their resume. And when human resources “Googles” them – which they will – they’ll find stuff that solidifies that they are a valuable candidate.”
Dinsdale was one of the students inspired by taking Booth’s nursing informatics class at Western. She says many of her peers struggle to balance their personal and professional lives online, but she has created an online brand, and she’s comfortable with what people will find when they Google her. “Put your best foot forward on social media,” she advises. “For me, even with my personal posts, I make sure it’s always something I would be okay with an employer reading.”
Asked how nurses should use social media, Booth’s answer is nuanced. He reflects on his mornings spent using Twitter to check commuter traffic on the highway, and to read about world issues. “These things are important to nursing in many different ways, but they’re also important to you as an individual walking down the street,” he says.
Social media is not a passing fad, he says. Eventually the term will disappear and digital communication will just be “the way we do things.” Although every nurse doesn’t have to spend their days tweeting and sharing, being aware of these platforms and their impact on society is crucial to keeping the profession relevant. “Even though you’re not using social media,” he says, “I guarantee your patients and most of their families are.”