Medical Examiner

Medical Twitter’s #ShareAStoryInOneTweet Is Heartbreaking, Self-Aggrandizing, and Extremely Important

Doctors need to remember the emotional heft of our everyday jobs.

Twitter bird in stethoscope
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Doctors are just like everyone else: They’re on Twitter. For many of us, Twitter has become a global watercooler, where professionals come to discuss ideas and hot topics, just like any other subset of Twitter. Debates over new articles, medical education, and policy are common and—somewhat extraordinarily given the medium—often civilized and informative.

Like any other field, “Med Twitter” has its stars, and last summer, Esther Choo became an undisputed one. An emergency physician and health-policy researcher, Choo fired off a tweetstorm about her experiences with racism as a practicing Asian American in Oregon (in a moment of downtime while watching one of her kids—emergency docs are legendary multitaskers). This was shortly after the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. It took off:

When Choo’s thread was retweeted by Chelsea Clinton—and about 25,000 others—she quickly gained national recognition as a champion of both patients and doctors rights. Choo has an unusual knack for capturing the medical zeitgeist, and last week she did it again, doing something that many have tried but few have accomplished: She made a hashtag happen. That hashtag, #ShareAStoryInOneTweet, took off after Choo tweeted her own story—one of a patient who beat the long odds and survived the necessarily brutal CPR she and her team provided.

The part of Choo’s story that took me by surprise is the twist at the end. What twist, you ask? The part where the patient calls his doctor to thank her every year, of course! As the medical system has become more challenging for patients to navigate, and more expensive, many physicians feel that their efforts are forgotten by their patients. We tend to hear about patient complaints, even if they represent a small fraction of the care we provide. So Choo’s story was a refreshing reminder that we still do make a difference and that, while they may not always say so, our patients do actually appreciate what we do for them.

Over the past few days, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals have followed Choo’s lead, revealing some of their most personal and moving stories in 280 characters or less. Not unlike the six-word story often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), many of these tweets really pack the pathos. Reading through them, one would correctly conclude that doctors and nurses have to process a lot of emotional baggage just to make it through the day. Or as one person put it: Med Twitter is emo.

Many of the tweets celebrate our successes:

While others serve as cautionary tales:

Others are personal stories that speak to our humanism and bravery, which too often gets overlooked.

Another theme that has cropped up is the sacrifices that we make and a reminder that we cannot take care of others if we do not take care of ourselves.

Many have shared inspirational stories revealing why they do what they do in the first place.

And stories of why what we do is so challenging; at times even the saves are heartbreaking.

Naturally, there are some detractors:

Admittedly, there is something vaguely self-aggrandizing about this hashtag. But I think there’s enough value here (both for the doctors and others getting a rare look into our actual feelings) that sentiments like these are justly in the minority. Ultimately, doctors have the urge and the instinct to teach. (The original Latin meaning of doctor was, in fact, teacher.)

We teach each other, we teach our students, and we teach our patients. But when we physicians lose sight of the reality that our own emotions are part of the overall equation, we lose that essential feeling that the work we do is vital to our patients. This, perhaps more than anything else, can lead to burnout. And if we forget it altogether, our patients will suffer too, because we can’t possibly bring our best selves to the job. Ultimately, I believe this is why this particular hashtag has taken off—and why we should remember it for longer than its inevitably short life span.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.