Over the last 50 years, the histology laboratory has witnessed countless technological advances in the streamlining of diagnostic systems. From enclosed tissue processors and staining machines to digital imaging and artificial intelligence, histology laboratories have moved apace. One development that has become a significant player in healthcare is the use of social media. An influential tool having the power to transform the pathology landscape, social media creates many opportunities. Since these platforms are free to use, no fiscal decisions are required, and involvement of the IT department is not normally a requirement. Through the computer-mediated technologies of websites and applications, social media allows the sharing of resources such as laboratory methods, practices, and meetings in real-time. By making connections with other colleagues, these platforms enable scientists and the medical fraternity to share their experiences and offer suggestions and updates on research and developments (Figure 1). Nowhere is this more evident than during the global pandemic when panels of experts shared their knowledge of Covid-19 through the medium of social media posts and video-based learning.
Using social media platforms, the ability to transmit high-resolution digital images direct from smartphones is also possible. However, the sharing of pathology images often generates debate when ethical guidelines are questioned. If there is a necessity for photographic images of clinical or histological importance to be used, they must be anonymised so they do not interfere with the issues surrounding patient confidentiality. If no privacy issues exist, photographs can be shared as valuable resources for seeking opinions, training and other educational purposes.
Social media at the touch of a button
There are many platforms currently available that allow the sharing of data with global audiences. Since the principal feature of each of them vary, it is often difficult to decide which platform to use professionally. Nonetheless, whichever one is chosen, the foremost requirements are to set up an account, write a short biography and add a profile picture. One of the most popular online platforms for social media and networking is Facebook (which also offers the services of Instagram and WhatsApp). Through this platform laboratory methods, research projects and interesting cases can be shared on an individual basis or through collaboration with organised pathology discussion groups. In this way, it is possible to interact quickly with multiple individuals and share the information in real-time.
Unlike Facebook, the social media platform Twitter allows only short posts (known as tweets or microblogs) up to 280 characters in length. Equally, Twitter allows images and web links to be attached in a similar way to Facebook. With Twitter, however, familiarisation of usernames (which have the prefix @) and the use of hashtags (#) that are placed before a keyword or phrase can sometimes be challenging. These hashtags help index the tweet or post, thereby enabling the keyword to be identified during a Twitter search. In pathology, Twitter is an ideal platform for live video recordings of scientific meetings and conferences and an excellent way to share all the latest information. The ability to live tweet a conference offers a running commentary of proceedings and is a perfect way of attending without physically being present at the meeting.
The messaging ability of the platform Snapchat is more of a compromise than Facebook and Twitter since posts and images are usually short-lived and become inaccessible to followers after a limited time. Snapchat is also more perplexing than the other social media platforms and not generally considered ideal for pathology. In contrast to Snapchat, the social networking platform of Instagram is often accepted as a location to share posts and images. One key disadvantage of Instagram is its lack of privacy settings since it allows accounts and posts to be viewed freely by everyone. However, users can choose to adjust the default setting if needed so that only approved individuals can view the account. Another weakness of Instagram is that it has a smaller user base and therefore does not have the broader impact that Facebook and Twitter can achieve. Consequently, the opportunity for boosting visibility using the Instagram platform is reduced.
The ability to share images safely and securely online is central to the success of any social media platform, particularly when applied to pathology. As previously mentioned, the creation of high-quality images can be made readily by utilising the photo editing applications that are available on modern tablets and smartphones. Images can be modified as required and watermarked as a means of ownership before sharing with other users. Often these images can be used as part of a much larger presentation and streamed live by using available resources. Meetings, webinars (web-based seminars) and conferences can be successfully broadcast using the live video functions of platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Zoom or by using other live video applications such as Periscope, recently acquired by Twitter and suitable for both Android and Apple operating systems. As an alternative to video, digital audio files or podcasts covering a broad range of topics relating to pathology are also available to download. Podcasts are generally shorter in length and range from a few minutes to one hour in duration. As these broadcasts are recorded audio-only, they can be listened to anywhere on smartphones and other mobile devices.
In the modern era, the professional bodies of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, Royal College of Pathology and the Health and Care Professions Council all use social media platforms regularly. For their members, there are ethical and practical guidelines for those who wish to use social media professionally. For those who have yet to embark on this voyage, the standards of the professional bodies outline the importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries when using these platforms.
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