The evolution of social media and visual abstracts in hospital medicine


In recent years, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become popular gathering spots for clinicians to connect, engage, and share medical content. Medical journals, which often act as purveyors of this content, have recognized social media’s growing power and influence and have begun looking for ways to better engage their audiences.

Dr. Charlie M. Wray, University of California, San Francisco

Dr. Charlie M. Wray

In 2016, the Annals of Surgery was looking to better disseminate the work being published in its pages and looked to Twitter as one way of accomplishing this. At the time, most journals were only posting the title or a brief description of the published manuscript and hoping their Twitter followers would click on the article link. As journal editors were finding, if the audience was not immediately familiar with the topic or able to quickly capture the nuances of the study, there was a good chance the reader would continue to scroll past the post and never view the article.

Recognizing that social media heavily relies on visual material to garner attention, Annals turned to Andrew Ibrahim, MD, an architect turned surgeon, to help them rethink their social media strategy. Using the design training he had previously received in his career as an architect, Dr. Ibrahim created a simple visual tool that could be used to capture the often complicated and nuanced aspects of a research study. He called his creation a “visual abstract.”

But what is a visual abstract? Simply, they are visual representations of the key findings of a published manuscript; or put another way, a “movie trailer” to the full manuscript. While they can take many different forms and designs, they often consist of three key components: (1) a simple, easy to understand title, (2) a primary focus on outcomes, and (3) the use of visual cues or images to help the reader absorb and remember the take home message. This simplified delivery of complex information allows the producer to efficiently share complex findings in a format that allows for rapid visualization and interpretation.

Components of an effective visual abstract Andrew M. Ibrahim

Since its inception, several studies have examined the influence visual abstracts have on disseminating research. One study conducted by Dr. Ibrahim and his colleagues found that articles tweeted with a visual abstract had an almost eightfold increase in the number of Twitter impressions (a measure of social media dissemination) and a threefold increase in article visits, compared with those manuscripts tweeted with the article title only.1 These results reflect what behavioral scientists have long understood: Humans process visual data better than any other type of data.2 For instance, according to research compiled by 3M, the company behind popular sticky notes, visual data is processed 60,000 times faster than text and has been shown to improve learning by 400%.3 Likewise, digital marketers have found that pages with videos and images draw on average 94% more views than their text-only counterparts.4

This knowledge, along with the substantial difference in engagement and dissemination characteristics from Dr. Ibrahim’s study, was far beyond what anyone might have expected and started a trend in medicine that continues to grow today. Medical journals across all practices and disciplines, including several leading journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Journal of Hospital Medicine (JHM), are utilizing this new tool to help disseminate their work in social media.

Visual abstracts have expanded beyond the social media sphere and are now frequently used in Grand Rounds presentations and as teaching tools among medical educators. JHM was one of the first journals to adopt the use of visual abstracts and has since published more than 150 in total. Given the growing popularity and expanded use of visual abstracts, JHM recently began archiving them on the journal’s website to allow clinicians to use the material in their own creative ways.

Visual abstracts are just one piece of the growing enterprise in social media for JHM. Recognizing the growing utilization of social media among physicians, JHM has taken a leading role in the use of online journal clubs. Since 2014, JHM has run a monthly Twitter-based journal club that discusses recently published articles and hospital medicine–based topics, called #JHMChat.5 This forum has allowed hospitalists from across the country, and around the world, to connect, network, and engage around topics important to the field of hospital medicine. The journal frequently reaches beyond hospital medicine borders and partners with other specialties and interest groups to gain perspective and insights into shared topic areas. To date, #JHMChat has one of the most robust online communities and continues to attract new followers each month.

As social media use continues to expand among clinicians, engagement tools like visual abstracts and Twitter chats will certainly continue to grow. Given that more clinicians are scrolling through websites than flipping through journal pages, medical journals like JHM will continually look for novel ways to engage their audiences and create communities among their followers. While a former architect who now practices as a surgeon led the way with visual abstracts, it remains to be seen who will create the next tool used to capture our attention on the ever-evolving sphere of social media.

Dr. Wray is a hospitalist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He also serves as a digital media and associate editor for the Journal of Hospital Medicine.


1. Ibrahim AM et al. Visual abstracts to disseminate research on social media: A prospective, case-control crossover study. Ann Surg. 2017;266(6):e46.

2. Tufte ER. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Second edition. Cheshire, Conn. Graphics Press, 2001.

3. Polishing Your Presentation. Accessed May 28, 2017.

4. 7 reasons you need visual content in your marketing strategy. Accessed May 28, 2017.

5. Wray CM et al. The adoption of an online journal club to improve research dissemination and social media engagement among hospitalists. J Hosp Med. 2018. doi: 10.12788/jhm.2987.

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