Hospitals that ban physicians from social media are long term losers

I’ve heard that a few academic medical centers, the identities which I will keep anonymous, are advising incoming medical residents to stay off social media.  Meaning, they have to close their blogs, and shutter their Twitter or Facebook accounts.

As hospitals and doctors try to best use social media, and prevent damage from its improper use, taking the extreme measure of forbidding doctors in training from utilizing social is heavy handed, short-sighted, and, in the long run, will set doctors back in the increasingly influential online space.

I can understand that, from a hospital’s standpoint, the damage that a single person can bring to an institution is considerable.  Consider the recent episode where a Rhode Island physician’s Facebook posting brought the hospital national infamy.

And in JAMA, there has been a study documenting that a small minority, 3%, of physician Tweets were inappropriate, with another paper showing a larger number of medical students engaging social media unprofessionally.

But utilizing social media properly gives physicians a powerful voice, and can help them build a positive, influential online persona.  When these residents graduate, patients will be looking for them online.  Physicians need to control their own digital footprint, rather than a third-party or a for-profit entity.

And prominent physicians in the social space, like Bryan Vartabedian, Wendy Sue Swanson, and Vineet Arora, give their respective institutions a physician-branded credibility that’s essential for trustworthiness online.

Casting social media in a negative light will only stunt physician adoption of blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.  While hospitals probably see this as an negligible trade-off in order to protect their reputations, it’s outrageously selfish, and will make doctors even more tentative online.  This puts them at a disadvantage at a time when patients expect more of their health care to involve the web, and, perhaps in the future, social media.

Instead of an outright ban, academic institutions need to bring their culture into the 21st century, develop reasonable social media policies, and educate their staff.   It’s sad that social media is seen as a threat, while the considerable benefits of proper physician social media use can bring are ignored.

I’m often asked by hospital administrators, “How can my hospital be more visible in the social media space?” I explain that doctors need to lead the effort, not PR or marketing.  Support doctors 110% in your social media efforts, and everyone will reap the rewards that will bring.

It’s unfortunate that some are taking the opposite tack. Banning physician involvement strikes me as poor strategy which will set these institutions back in the long run.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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