Social Media and Medicine: Challenges and Opportunities

social mediaWhen it comes to adopting new practices, physicians as a group are typically “late majority” adopters. According to sociologist Everett Rogers, “These individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation.” On one level, I understand the reluctance to integrate new clinical methods when people’s lives are at stake; of course, we want to minimize the risk of harm while assessing potential benefits. Yet if it weren’t for René Laennec, taking a chance 200 years ago and inventing something as crazy as, well, the stethoscope, we’d still be sticking our ear right up to every patient’s chest and hoping for the best.

The advent of social media in medicine has been met with the same skepticism. While a 2011 QuantiaMD survey found that 87% of physicians use social media personally and 67% use it professionally, most journal articles published on the topic read as four-alarm warnings to tread ever so carefully.

A prime example is the recent policy statement, “Online Medical Professionalism: Patient and Public Relationships,” published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Though authors acknowledge that social media platforms present opportunities for professionals, their policy recommendations focus squarely on the challenges, cautioning us to maintain strict professional boundaries and guard our reputations.

While I agree that it’s important to understand the power and reach of what we post, I also agree wholeheartedly with Dr. David Shaywitz, who notes in his Forbes blog:

“I reject the view that the internet and social media are somehow degrading the culture of medicine, or causing it to change for the worse. Instead, I see emerging modalities as offering the profession an urgently needed chance to radically update its approach, and interact with patients, data, and each other in important new ways.”

I believe those who mindfully embrace new digital strategies will find incredible opportunities to engage patients and create what I call a “scalable community.”

With the spread of social media, digital health care initiatives are no longer simply about a one-way, top-down flow of information. Honestly, whether you offer health advice on your blog or publish it in the New England Journal of Medicine, you have to be cognizant about how your words are perceived. The idea of “Web 2.0,” though, is about interactivity, a back-and-forth conversation. It’s about connection and community, not simply information dumping and diagnosing.

Think of these interactive tools as complements to your patient portal. You and your patients can rely on the portal for secure, patient communication about specific health care issues while using social media to engage the community as a whole. Better yet, the most widely used social media are free and portable marketing tools. You just have to learn how to use them.

Medical practices have often been local sources of education and support, and now we’re able to take it to a new, global level. With mindful use of social media, we are able to leverage our positions as trusted community leaders to create and nurture a much larger community. Aamer Hayat, CEO of awc management and my co-presenter at this week’s athenahealth User Conference 2013 session, “Growing Your Business in the Digital Age,” agrees:

“Think of social media as an extension of your neighborhood bar, salon, or even the backyard. It’s a place where you connect with your neighbor, friend, confident and source of all the things you want to know. As physicians, caregivers, and healthcare advocates, that’s what we are supposed to do, connect with people. Social media is a B12 shot to that connection. Embrace it, own it, and you can manage that connection to achieve amazing results.”

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