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Wednesday Jul 10, 2019

Reaping Benefits (and Avoiding Pitfalls) of Social Media

Editor's note: After new research highlighted the effect a single negative social media post can have on a health care professional's credibility, we asked our new physician bloggers how -- and why -- they use social media. Here's a roundup of their responses.

[person using social media on phone]

Social Media and Medicine

Let's start by stating the obvious: Regardless of your profession, it's probably good practice to curate your social media posts a bit. In an era where everything is filed away and easily recalled, there's little margin for error in social media.

As a physician, the margin is even slimmer.

We take an oath to do no harm, and that applies widely. A public mistake could damage your reputation at best or get you in trouble for HIPAA violations at worst. Or you might alienate your community and patients. That's harmful for everyone.

But social media can be used for good, too, even for physicians.

I founded a practice, and we wouldn't have been able to recruit new patients had it not been for good ol' social media, a few likes, a few shares, some Instagram-worthy pics and the virality of social networks. We post health tips and link to relevant blogs and news articles. We try to be a voice for science and truth when inaccurate information is being shared widely.

I also have used Twitter to connect with colleagues nationwide. It expands my perception of what's happening in medicine and (even though I can get a touch ranty) allows me to keep prodding and poking those around me in the social sphere to do better, ask more questions and keep fighting for our patients.

When trolls pop up, which they do, I ignore them. No need to waste time and energy on bad behavior. But not every negative comment is necessarily trolling; sometimes it's an opportunity to further the discourse and provide accurate information.

On the whole, social media has positively impacted me and my practice because we're careful about how we present ourselves, which we all should be anyway.

Allison Edwards, M.D., is a direct primary care physician in Kansas City, Kan. You can follow her on Twitter @Dr_A_Edwards.
(twitter.com)

Social Media as Advocacy Tool

During my second year of residency, I founded our program's Twitter and Facebook accounts in response to the threat of closure from our hospital system. Our social media campaign was an avenue to save and promote our program while connecting with others who advocated for family medicine. On Twitter specifically, we felt the support of our family medicine community through the hashtag #savefamilymedicine, which was retweeted thousands of times and often targeted toward our hospital's administration.

The administration eventually reversed its decision. The credit is to our faculty, residents, medical students and advocates for primary care throughout the country. Although not the main impetus for change, social media allowed us to raise awareness of the threat to our program and the patients it supported, helped us build a groundswell of support, and attracted media coverage.

In the aftermath, as our program's faculty and residents negotiated a new relationship with administration, a group of us decided that the ethos of "saving" family medicine simply maintained the status quo. Instead, we wanted our diverse and dynamic specialty to expand and develop solutions for the health care system at large. Through our social media accounts, we deliberately pivoted the conversation by using the hashtag #growfamilymedicine to express our mission and obligation to the family medicine community.

This was my introduction to the power of social media. Since graduating, I've found the #medtwitter community to be a wonderful resource for medical education, as well as a space to discuss and learn about racism in medicine, gender equality and health care policy.

More recently, I've used Twitter as a place to share amusing vignettes from my day. A few weeks ago, a new patient told me he follows me on Twitter and that I'm "pretty cool." It feels strange to have this public profile that patients can access, but I hope it serves to humanize and promote our specialty by reaching more people than I could reach on my own.

Lalita Abhyankar, M.D., M.H.S., is a family physician in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @L_Abhyankar.(twitter.com)

Two Tools, Two Audiences

I was late to adopt social media compared to my peers. I didn't have a Facebook account until after I started medical school and I didn't add Twitter until my last year of residency.

I use my two social media accounts differently. Selfishly, I like having a nonmedical Facebook presence (as much as one can when you have tons of friends who are also doctors). I use Facebook to stay in touch with my friends. I won't accept friend requests from any patients, and I won't read anything sent via Facebook Messenger by a patient or office staff.

On the other hand, I created my Twitter account to connect with other physicians interested in health policy. And although many of my patients don't use social media, I have a few who do follow me and have mentioned reading articles I post on vaccines. I like having a social media outlet that reaches patients, but I also enjoy having another that does not. Sometimes I need to step away from medicine to keep balance in my life.

Kimberly Becher, M.D., practices at a rural federally qualified health center in Clay County, W.Va. You can follow her on Twitter @BecherKimberly.(twitter.com)

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

For most adults considering whether to start -- or engage with -- their Facebook or Instagram accounts, I would recommend not doing it. It could make you less happy.(www.forbes.com)

For physicians, as noted in the research referred to above, you also bear reputational risk. Most patients do not want to see their physicians as regular people. Sharing one's party photos, in particular, makes it less likely that patients will see you as a professional.

On the flip side of this argument, there are patients who may request to be your friend on Facebook, and then you are in the awkward position of having to decline a request, or carefully manage permission settings.

If abstaining from social media does not seem right -- either because it is how you get your news or you feel you may be missing out on the zeitgeist -- the best social media platform for physicians might be Twitter. You have the option of creating a nondescript account or handle, and you need not worry about being tagged in random photos. And among social media platforms, it remains one of the best ways to stay on top of the most recent and relevant news as you cultivate a list of thought leaders in the fields that matter to you.

Anoop Raman, M.D., M.B.A., is a family physician in Philadelphia. You can follow him on Twitter @noopraman.(twitter.com)

Avoid the Pitfalls

Social media is a powerful tool and one that should be in the white coat pocket of every physician. However, just like the medications we prescribe, it must be used in the right context at the right time and by a physician aware of its side effects.

Most patients are on social media, and many want to interact with physicians who use and understand social media. A 2014 study found that roughly 70% of physicians or health systems use social media(www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) for marketing or community engagement. Perhaps more stunning, nearly 60% percent of patients said that a health care organization's social media presence strongly influences where they go for care.

The doctor-patient conversation can begin before and extend after a visit. Doctors, patients and families can reach each other in new and innovative ways to help improve the health of communities.

Here are three more reasons to consider using social media:

  • Social media marketing, networking and communication can open doors and provide new insights into clinical practice and careers.
  • Physicians can reach patients where they are to help educate them and correct misinformation. I share my Twitter handle with many patients with hope they will read my posts aimed directly at the public.
  • Social media can improve public health through powerful advocacy and grassroots public policy work.

To avoid the pitfalls of social media while harnessing its power, it is critical to build a framework within which to work. First, establish and maintain digital professionalism by acquiring social media proficiency, building a positive reputation, ensuring responsibility and framing conversations in a manner that keeps patients at the center. Having a social media presence that is deliberate, ethical and accountable will help you avoid many problems. It is also critical to be aware of your institution's social media policies.

Lastly, I recommend the "newspaper test." If you do not want your post or tweet on the front page of your local newspaper tomorrow, then don't post it today.

Alex Mroszczyk-McDonald, M.D., practices family medicine and sports medicine in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @alexmmtri.(twitter.com)

Posted at 02:48PM Jul 10, 2019 by Allison Edwards, M.D.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.