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To Tweet or Not To Tweet? Doctors & Social Media

Submitted by on August 27, 2012 – 1:16 PM One Comment

It’s hard to deny that in a very small amount of time, social media has become deeply embedded into the contemporary culture. The ultimate product of globalization, ability to communicate freely and without hindrance to almost anyone willing to reciprocate around the world has opened up a realm of new possibilities for anyone who is able to get connected to the web.

Healthcare professionals, especially doctors, have been engaged in a cold war with the opinions and unfounded medical understandings of the masses since the beginning of modern medicine. Wide-spread beliefs such as having ice-cream at night will result in a bout of influenza (it won’t, just make sure to brush your teeth before sleeping) and even potentially damaging myths such as hugging a person who is HIV positive will lead to you contracting AIDS (it won’t, unless you don’t quite know what hugging is) have always been a nuisance to allopathic practitioners (or even to people with some common sense).

The escalation of social media, the ‘printing’ of words and opinions as if it were professionally authored text, has resulted in an increase in hearsay understanding of diagnosis and treatment. Individual who have absolutely no knowledge of medicine can write advices and diagnose diseases which may under appreciate the severity of the patient’s condition or even diagnose a disease where none exists. The statistics clearly support this notion. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center, 80% of Internet users in the United States have looked up health information online while 34% of internet users have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website or blog. The same research also states that 23% of social-network users have followed a friend’s health experiences online.

While all of this does pose a serious challenge to doctors whose patient may have had the misfortune of relying on false information gathered online, social media also provides a unique medium for enhancing doctor-patient relationship. From texting health messages to patients, tracking disease trends on Twitter, identifying medical problems on Facebook pages and communicating with patients through email- social media is fast becoming the modus operandi of a new breed of tech savvy physicians. Writing basic remedies, opinions and instructions in online blogs and simply sending links to these to patients who ask for help is both economical and effective way to communicate.

Despite some physicians being comfortable with the idea of enlisting social media in the doctor-patient relationship, management at hospitals and clinics are more reluctant with regards to unsupervised doctor-patient communication. As a matter of fact, some hospitals such as Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, USA force their doctors to set optimal privacy settings on social profiles, forbid them from communicating with patients through social networks and ignore any patient trying to ‘friend’ them online. For these institutions, the threat of a lawsuit from potential breeches of doctor-patient confidentiality and misunderstanding of treatment and advice outweigh the benefits of enhanced communication between doctors and patients.

The transference can be in the other direction too. A notable case is of a college psychiatrist who not only added her patient to her social profiles, but had the audacity of ‘friending’  her patients’ friend years later as well! All this while the patient remained nervous, watching as the person who knew all his deepest and most dark feelings interact socially with other people in his life.

In fact, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 90% of State Boards have received at least one complaint of bad online behavior by healthcare professionals, especially student residents of which 13% were in clear violation of patient confidentiality. But perhaps the most startling statistic is that only 10% medical schools implemented a social media policy at all.

Social media is here to stay. Modern healthcare treatment has to take into account that to be truly effective in understanding patient needs and delivering optimal service in an ever more connected world, doctors too have to embrace social networking in their professional practices. However, social media polices have to be developed that set standards and norms of using this medium along with training of future doctors with includes ethics of social media in communicating with or about patients.

But then again, nothing works better than a bit of common sense while socializing, online or offline!

About the Author:  Aiman Awaiz is a medical student from Sindh Medical College, Karachi, Pakistan. She can be contacted at : [email protected]

About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2012

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  • Dr James Platis

    That would make an excellent poster.