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Profiles in Oncology Social Media: Matthew S. Katz, MD, @subatomicdoc

Butcher, Lola

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000437218.43601.ce

Twitter Bio: I am a community-based doctor learning how to improve cancer care and health empowerment with social media. All content represents me, myself & I, none other. Bio: Matthew S. Katz, MD, is the Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Lowell General Hospital and a partner in Radiation Oncology Associates, PA. He is an Instructor at Harvard Medical School and former Chair of the Communications Committee for the American Society for Radiation Oncology. He serves on the Communications Committee for Massachusetts Medical Society and the external advisory board for Mayo Clinic's Center for Social Media. His areas of prime interest are patient education and health empowerment.



Matthew S. Katz, MD, a radiation oncologist in Lowell, Massachusetts, is a prolific user of social media to pursue a particular professional goal. By interacting with patients that he will never meet, he gains insights into how best to communicate with patients he encounters in his office.

A third-generation physician—his grandfather was a general practitioner and his father is a psychiatrist—he knows that most physicians are drawn to medicine because they want to help people. But he notes that because the practice of radiation oncology focuses so much on technology and biology, he believes patient communication sometimes takes a backseat to technical expertise—to the possible detriment of the patient that the physician is trying to help.

“The way that physicians and other health care providers frame diseases and health issues is extremely important in how people will understand both the illness the patient may have and the way in which they can cope with what are sometimes very difficult decisions,” he said.

So while some physicians use Twitter and other social media primarily to network with professional colleagues or stay current with new research findings, Katz says he is on the lookout for patient questions and comments that reveal what they are thinking and feeling and what information they need from their oncologists.

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How do you use social media?

“My first contact in terms of health care was through Yahoo! Answers back around 2006. I found it very helpful and interesting to see how people thought about cancer and their health in straightforward, non-medical language. I was a responder who answered some of the questions about cancer. After a while, I opted to discontinue, but, from that experience, I learned how to better speak with patients in a way that is understandable, as opposed to being overly medical.

“The primary place that I spend my social media time is on Twitter, followed by writing blog posts for mostly either Mayo Clinic or for ASCO Connection. I also have a Tumblr blog that is not specifically medical.

“The reason I am on Twitter is I enjoy the real-time interaction and conversations you can have with other people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I don't have any specific agenda, and I'm not trying to sell anything or promote anything. Social media, whether it is Twitter or any other platform, is just a communication tool, and I use it to learn how to be a better doctor. And I have learned a tremendous amount.”

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Why “subatomicdoc”?

“The origin is twofold: First, what I offer for treatment is subatomic particles— photons and electrons—as essentially therapeutic drugs to treat cancer. Second, the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis or any health problem creates a certain amount of questions about where you are in your life.

“As a radiation oncologist, the term also has some interesting analogies to quantum physics that appealed to me. I use this as a public handle that seemed more interesting than just my name, but I'm not anonymous online.

“I began using that with Yahoo! Answers. Then I used it for Digg, and I felt it would be a reasonable thing to continue. I have put my footprint as “subatomicdoc” on almost all the major social media platforms. That doesn't mean I use all of them, but I register for them so no one else can use that name to impersonate me because my reputation is linked to that handle.”

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How has your use of social media helped you become a better physician?

“A huge benefit for me has been my involvement in the Breast Cancer Social Media (BCSM) community,, which hosts the #bcsm tweetchat on Twitter most Monday nights at 9 pm ET. I just happened to be on Twitter when that first conversation began about two years ago and I was fascinated to be able to hear women's experiences of dealing with the difficult circumstances or the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

“It has been remarkable to me in terms of understanding a little better what kinds of concerns my patients probably have but that they don't spontaneously offer in a 15-minute follow-up visit when I see them after they have completed treatment. This information helps me think of questions I might want to ask my patients so that I can understand ways I can help them better.

“My role in those sessions is very different from that of the moderators and other participants. I am there not so much as a health care provider but rather as a friendly resource who can give a medical perspective, but not medical advice.”

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What is the hashtag project?

“This idea came out of my participation in #bcsm. There are other communities that are starting to emerge such as #btsm (brain tumor social media) and #lcsm (lung cancer social media). I started thinking about how to develop a better way to communicate by creating content online using hashtags. So back in July I proposed a “Hashtag Folksonomy for Cancer Communities on Twitter” in an ASCO Connection blogpost (, and it generated more interest than I ever would have expected.

“Then Patricia Anderson, a health sciences librarian at the University of Michigan whom I know through the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media Advisory Board, set up a Google community ( to discuss and develop this idea. We are working on this together and trying to find the right people to do this well.

“First, we want to understand whether it will be helpful for patients and attractive for physicians or others. We also want to make sure that hashtags are organized so that when new people go online, there is a way to educate them about the risks and benefits of participating in a hashtag community and to let them know how to find a community of people who have experiences similar to what they are going through.”

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You have noted that you have some concerns about the proliferation of social media—can you elaborate?

“We don't understand well enough how communication tools like these can be used for good or ill. Traditionally in medicine, we have been protective of patients' dignity and privacy, and social media is inherently open. And we have seen a lot of things recently such as the National Security Agency where privacy violations are common through social media.

“While many people have really good experiences from interacting with others who are sharing a similar cancer experience, those interactions are in the public forum. We don't have good research at this point as to whether these interactions are actually helpful to enhance people's health. So we just need to be careful that we understand the risks and benefits of participation, both for patients and doctors.”

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How do you find time to use social media?

“If I have a down period during the day, I may look at Twitter. But most of the tweets that I send out during the day are scheduled so that information that I want to share is spaced out rather than all coming out in a torrent so that everybody glazes over.

“I use something called Buffer (, which links to my Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts and allows me to schedule content to send out. I will sometimes send things spontaneously, but as a doctor my patients are my primary responsibility. If people respond to my posts dung the day, I generally do not interact until later.”

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Continuing Series

The full archive of our Profiles Oncology Social Media can be found in this Collection on the OT website:

© 2013 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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