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  • #Fail? Study Says Physical Therapy's Reach on Social Media Comes up Short

    When it comes to using social media to promote the profession, physical therapy may be missing out: that's the conclusion of a recent study that analyzed physical therapy-related tweets and found that, for the most part, Twitter discussions about the profession are occurring in an "echo chamber"—if they even rise to the level of a discussion in the first place.

    The study, published in APTA's journal PTJ (Physical Therapy), looked at a random sample of 1,000 tweets from a collection of 30,000 tweets gathered over a 12-week period. Researchers sorted out each message according to its author, intended audience, tone, and theme, and—when it occurred—the "pattern" of the twitter conversation, which includes shares as well as actual online exchanges. The collection was based on 9 search terms: physical therapy, physiotherapy, physical therapist, physiotherapist, #physicaltherapy, #physiotherapy, #physical therapist, #physiotherapist, and #physio. Hashtags associated with "known physical therapy campaigns," such as APTA's #ChoosePT, were not included in the searches. [Editor's note: the article appears in the August edition of PTJ, which is the journal's 1,000th issue—help celebrate by checking out the PTJ website for original research, perspectives, podcasts, and more.]

    Here's what they found:

    • Of the tweets that generated shares and discussions, most were what the Pew Research Foundation calls "tight crowd" and "brand cluster"—discussions that "tended to cluster on the periphery, dominated by a small group of highly connected people with few isolated participants," according to authors.
    • A substantial number of tweets, authors write, were from "disconnected participants" whose messages "resulted in no interaction with anyone other than the tweet's original author." The exceptions tended to be when APTA, other national organizations, and celebrities tweeted about physical therapy. As an example, authors offered up a 2016 physical therapy-related tweet by wrestler and actor John Cena, which at the time of the study had 1,550 retweets and 4,403 likes.
    • Almost half the tweets (48.5%) were characterized as "marketing" in nature. Employment-related tweets were a distant second at 17.7% of the total, followed by patient experience (15.7%), education (15.7%), advocacy (14.6%), conversation (14.3%), opinion/editorial (13.8%), physical therapist (PT) education (11.3%), research (7.7%), and continuing education (3.2%).
    • Recruiters and corporations were responsible for 86% of all employment-related tweets. PTs, physical therapist assistants (PTAs), and clinics were the authors of the majority of messages related to patient education, continuing education, and marketing.

    The big takeaway, according to authors, is that if PTs and PTAs want to heighten the profession's profile on social media, they need to do more than just show up.

    "The results of the present study reveal that simply being present on social media may not be enough," authors write. "The power of social media is in the conversation, and information becomes influential through 'likes,' 'retweets,' 'shares,' and 'mentions.' Physical therapy professionals and the hospitals and clinics that employ them need to understand the function and structure of online health conversations so they may influence and effectively engage in these conversations."

    Moving physical therapy discussions beyond what the researchers describe as a social media "echo chamber" will require a more savvy approach, according to the authors. They suggest "leverage[ing] the power and reach of broadcast networks and popular events" such as the Olympic Games, and using more generic hashtags (#rehabilitation, for example), as well as hashtags that "infiltrate another distinct mode of professionals" (#sportsmedicine, for instance) as ways to increase the reach of their messages.

    Authors acknowledge that the samples they studied provide a "limited" and "superficial" view of the entirety of physical therapy-related social media activity, and further admit that the average of 300 physical therapy-related tweets per day is a drop in the bucket compared with Twitterverse activity as a whole. Still, they argue, the profession needs to understand—and leverage—the power of social media as a provider of health information.

    "Online health information seekers have a high level of trust [in information accessed online] and often use it to make health decisions," authors write. "Rehabilitation-related information is not immune to this influence."

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.