Physicians Using Social Media – Opportunities and Challenges

In the last few years, social media has expanded far beyond a social network where friends can communicate via platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

Businesses are now incorporating social media to promote their brands, monitor sentiment, spur innovation, as well as provide better customer support.

The medical world is no exception to the growing popularity of using social media for "business" purposes. Medical blogs, clinic Facebook pages, and doctors with Twitter accounts are popping up all over the web. These social media tools are being used to market medical services, gather feedback from patients as well as provide reliable online medical information.

Additionally, a whole generation of new doctors has been raised on social media. For them, tweeting about their daily experiences (frequently in real-time) is practically second nature.

Of course, as with any tool, there is the potential for positive and negative outcomes. Let's explore some of the benefits and pitfalls of social media as they refer to medicine.

Why Doctors Should Leverage Social Media

Imagine you discover a strange growth on your arm (and assume that you are not a doctor). Chances are pretty good that you will Google "strange growth on my arm" or something similar to that. Your search will provide you with a long list of web sites that are dedicated to medical issues.

The problem is that many of these sites are not managed by medical professionals or doctors, and information can be misleading or outright wrong – leaving the person with the weird growth very misinformed about their condition.

As such, many doctors and medical institution feel a pressing responsibility to dissolve accurate medical information and even address online patient inquiries. Establishing blogs, forums and just being part of the online conversation is not only a cost-effective way of educating the public. It's becoming essential in ensuring that people are getting the right information to live healthy lives and receive the treatments they might need.

The nice "side-effect" for hospitals and doctors providing quality information and online service, is that it acts as the best marketing and PR possible. Patients will appreciate being able to access medical information while receiving solid and professional advice online – and this will attract them to the institutions and doctors that provide it.

Another major benefit of social media is found in physicians collaborating and sharing knowledge via online forums and chats. For example, doctors that are interested in social media and healthcare can join the Twitter conversation, #hcsm, dedicated specifically to this topic. Now a medical professional in Idaho can communicate with peers all over the world, to discuss topics of interest to them.

And this is just one example of the hundreds of healthcare topics being discussed by professionals on Twitter.

Problems Surrounding Social Media Usage

The best way to illustrate some of the issues swirling around doctors online is a case that just recently occurred.

A doctor with an anonymous Twitter account called mommy_doctor, tweeted about treating a patient with a 36 hour priapism. Her tweets sparked a cyber-storm of both criticism and support from across the online medical community.

Some of the issues debated included:

  • Is online anonymity for doctors and does it build confidence and trust among colleges and patients
  • Are patient privacy laws (HIPAA) being breached when discussing patient cases online (even without names / exact details)
  • Is medical humor or venting (coming from doctors) appropriate in a public forum or does it denigate the respect and reputation of the entire medical establishment (as well as insults patients)
  • Should rules for online communication be any different than conversations held via the phone or in public settings

The hundreds of online comments (not to mention thousands of tweets) generated by this single case, indicate that doctors as decision-makers and care-givers walk a very fine line when it comes to social media. They need to balance their own needs for social interaction, with the needs and rights of their patients – all while upholding the reputation and authority of the medical community. Not an easy task.

Another challenge is the potential issue of malpractice lawsuits. If a doctor provides any type of diagnosis or recommendation online, there could be liability issues.

Even offering an opinion not related to a specific question might be problematic.

Medical Social Media Best Practices

In light of the above opportunities and challenges, social media advisers to the medical community like Glen Gilmore and Susan Giurleo suggest the following:

  • Become very familiar with HIPAA guidelines. Privacy regulations not only protect the disclosure of a patient's name and "individually identifiable health information," but also requires the safeguarding of any information where there is a "reasonable basis to believe it can be used to identify the individual."
  • Even though most medical establishments do not typically have "communication policies" and doctors are expected to know when when and what's to discuss, social media seems to have lowered the standards a bit. As such a social media policy may be a good way to ensure appropriate online conduct.
  • Even if doctors and medical staff are already using social media, providing some training on how online networks function or mobile devices operate, can go a long way in preventing unintentional disclosures of patient identity. Additionally, much can be gained from teaching doctors about how to leverage social media for marketing and online relationship building.
  • Make sure to receive written authorization from patients anytime you want to use any of their information online.
  • Designate someone on staff to consistently monitor all online activity from your hospital or clinic. That way you can make sure that your social media presence never runs afoul of HIPAA.
  • Avoid direct online communication with patients until there are more laws governing this in place. For the time being, use social media to provide general information for the public, while keeping diagnoses and recommendations something that is done in person.