OK. Maybe my title seems a bit wild. But it's all true....just read on and you'll see!
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 industry is no exception to the growing trend 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 (sometimes 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 pertain to medicine.
Why Doctors Should Leverage Social Media
Imagine you discover a funky rash on your leg (and assume that you are not a doctor). Chances are
pretty high that you will Google “funky rash on my leg” 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 funky rash greatly misinformed
about their condition.
As such, many doctors and medical institution feel a pressing responsibility to disseminate 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 healthier 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 physicians 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 gastroenterology can join the
Twitter conversation, #Gastroenterology, dedicated specifically to this topic. Now a gastroenterologist
in Texas can communicate with peers all over the world, to discuss best practices and treatments. And this
is just one example of the hundreds of healthcare topics being discussed by professionals on Twitter.
Controversy Surrounding Social Media Usage
The best way to illustrate some of the issues swirling around physicians 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 appropriate for doctors and does it build confidence and trust among colleagues 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 denigrate the respect and
reputation of the entire medical establishment (as well as insult 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 advisors 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 don’t typically have “communication policies” and doctors are
expected to know the when’s and what’s to discuss, social media seems to have lowered the standards a bit.
As such a social media policy might 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 public 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.
Special thanks to Gail Zahtz of the Life Guide Institute for introducing me to wonderful healthcare hashtags like
#hcsm and #hscmeu . Without them, this article would never have been written.