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Friday Jul 07, 2017

Patients Trust Social Media, so Be Their Trusted Source

"Instagram is for narcissists."

"Individuals who spend time on social media don't have real jobs."  

[Family physician and social media enthusiast Mikhail Varshavski, D.O.]

My social media presence has led to even more opportunities to reach patients through partnerships with traditional media, such as this appearance on Good Morning America.

"No one takes social media seriously."

"Facebook is a place for cyberbullying."

"Selfies are not for professionals."

You may have heard such comments. I don't agree with any of them.

Some people still don't grasp the utility of social media in the medical landscape. However, more than 2.5 billion people are using social platforms worldwide(www.statista.com), and the percentage of Americans using social media has increased from 24 percent to 81 percent(www.statista.com) in the past 10 years. Social media influences everything from politics to commerce to cultural movements, and it's time family physicians took notice.

By its nature, social media encourages users to publicize the private, so it's understandable that the medical community has reservations. There certainly are risks in using social media as a health care professional -- breaches of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, overexposure, and erosion of credibility, to name a few. But as clinicians, we know we must weigh the risks and benefits before making any decision. From my perspective, the benefits of using social media for medical purposes strongly outweigh the risks. It truly is an overlooked symbiotic relationship.

Our specialty has always been at the forefront of creating new lines of communication with our patients. The beauty of family medicine, and why I went into this field, is that we are able to make drastic differences in lives by not only treating disease but also through education and prevention. Social media is a tool we can use to continue this mission, one that can influence the health decisions of millions. This can range from encouraging preventive health visits to inspiring lifestyle changes.

There is no single way to make use of this global trend. Family physicians are a diverse group of people with equally diverse interests. Our social media styles should reflect that. Being an early adopter of Instagram, I have been able to amass a following of more than 3 million people. I will admit that initial interest in my page was not purely medical in nature -- see People Magazine(www.nydailynews.com) --  but it is my responsibility to redirect this interest into a discussion about public health.

From posting selfies on Instagram of my everyday practice to creating unique YouTube videos on a variety of medical and nonmedical topics, I can reach millions of people and potentially influence how they take care of their health.

More than 40 percent of patients say social media presence influences their choice when selecting a new physician(thesparkreport.com). When a patient comes to my practice solely because of my social media presence, and we are able to detect early-stage cancer or administer a vaccine that may not have been given otherwise, I consider that a great success.

I am a passionate advocate for preventive care, but I see one glaring obstacle ahead. Young people don't go to the doctor as often as they should. Forty percent of people ages 18-24 do not see a medical professional yearly(www.census.gov) compared to just 8 percent of those older than 65. Making a lifestyle change in someone who is 20 can have a greater impact than in someone who is 60.

This is the heart of preventive medicine, yet no one has figured out how to engage in an ongoing conversation with the younger demographic. Other industries are already seeing the importance of utilizing social media, restructuring their workforce and shifting internal budgets. According to the Duke University School of Business, in 2016, the average business spent 11 percent of its advertising budget on social media(www.fuqua.duke.edu), and that number is expected to increase to 21 percent during the next five years. We need to think like marketers and sell our message of health through prevention and education.

I am aware the medical community likes to see studies showing tangible benefits. However, in this case, it may not be that simple. What I can do, in speaking from my own experience, is attest to the fact that my following is growing, patient's medical questions are improving, and new doctor-patient relationships are developing.

A public conversation about health is the first step in motivating this younger generation to begin to care about prevention and staying healthy. Ninety percent of young adults say they trust medical information shared on their social feeds(www.forbes.com), so it's important that they receive information from a source worthy of that trust.

Another point that is often not discussed is that we simply do not see family medicine represented enough in traditional or social media. Time and time again I see subspecialists talking about primary care issues because their specialties are glorified in scripted television. I know of no specialists more capable of answering a wide range of medical questions from the average viewer than family physicians. We have a finger on the pulse of what questions people have, we know what their worries are, and most importantly, we know the language to use so they can clearly understand our responses.

During my time in the media spotlight, I have been able to share with the general public the incredible abilities of family physicians. During appearances on The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America and The Doctors, I consistently try to instill the idea in the producers' and audiences' minds that family medicine, as a health resource, should receive more consideration. Using social media to garner positive attention for our specialty is one step we can take to change the way our work is perceived by the media and the masses.

Social media certainly has its risks. It can increase anxiety and depression in our youth. However, the answer is not to vilify its existence but instead to figure out how to best leverage it to serve the needs of our patients. The millennial generation wants more access with less work. They will ask questions on social media but may not visit you in the office unless directed to. We should not passively wait for the younger demographic to come to us but should instead reach out to them where they are. I prefer to give general answers to their questions online rather than have them simply rely on Dr. Google or spend several anxious hours navigating WebMD.

I admit there's a thin line between practicing "cocktail" medicine and just giving general advice, but this challenge is one we must grow comfortable with in our ever-changing technological landscape. The mission statement of the AAFP calls on family physicians "to improve the health of patients, families and communities by serving the needs of members with professionalism and creativity," and we can use social media to help us achieve those goals.

Mikhail Varshavski, D.O., is a family physician in New York City and a leading voice in the social media health space. You can follow him on YouTube(www.Youtube.com), on Twitter @RealDoctorMike,(twitter.com) and on Instagram @Doctor.Mike(www.instagram.com).

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