A social media background is an asset in medicine

I have a confession to make. Lately I’ve been doing some soul-searching regarding the future of my social media presence. It started at a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, where students and residents were cautioned to avoid public social media profiles and blogging. It came up again one morning while I was discussing some current events with other students, and was mentioned most recently at a professionalism talk that I attended. On each of these occurrences, I’ve found myself having to ferociously defend my position on the subject, only to receive the same, cautionary response, “Oh, I would just be careful..”

While difficult to convey in print, the overall tone of voice and demeanor that generally accompany this phrase are probably best described as ‘politely cynical.’ I don’t honestly know if my fellow medical students are that uninterested in social media by way of personal preference, or afraid of the repercussions that social media engagement may have on their budding careers. In either case, it is disheartening, and I respond with the same passionate explanation of my point of view.

That’s not to say that I also haven’t considered the consequences of choosing to maintain a public online presence, or that I haven’t been terrified by the prospect of being turned away on Match Day because my social media profile is viewed as a liability rather than an asset. However, it DOES mean I have been doing a lot more thinking about how I will one day tackle the issue of social media as I apply to residencies.

In college I decided to study communications because I liked to write and talk in front of people. I had always been the first to volunteer for class presentations and had done some high-school public speaking events, so I felt that studying communications would help make me a unique medical school applicant. As part of my graduation requirements, I put together a reader course with one of my professors to discuss different types of healthcare communications. We initially talked about topics like pharma advertising and small group and two-person didactic communication theories. One day the professor brought up the issue of patients receiving health information from websites, such as WebMD. That was my first experience with online medical information, and probably where my fascination with the relationship between health care and the media began.

With that said, the reasons I engage in social media reach far beyond a superficial compulsion to keep up-to-date with news and celebrity gossip. Through observation and practice, I have developed my own rules for participating both safely and ethically in online social spheres. I enjoy writing in general, and the fact that I maintain a blog and social media profiles has opened the door to multiple freelance writing positions, as well as valuable networking and mentorship opportunities. While I am not qualified to (and certainly would not) disseminate any medical advice, I do feel as though I am establishing the credibility I need to one day advocate for my patients, particularly in the media. As was pointed out in a recent KevinMD.com post, celebrities and politicians currently hold more sway when it comes to providing medical information and changing public opinion than do trained physicians. I’m not saying I want to be the next Dr. Oz, but my background in writing, social media, and communications will certainly help me more effectively reach out to my patients, my government and community leaders, and my colleagues, as well as help me become a more effective medical educator, should my career take me down that path.

I can’t honestly say that my very first social media profile was created with the goal of career enhancement in mind. However, at this point in my education, I feel as though my background in social media is more of an asset – regardless of where in medicine I end up – than a liability, and I am thus proud to say that I will not be deleting or hiding any of my profiles as I advance to the next stage of medical education. My sites and profiles may undergo a few face-lifts as I conform to the social media policies of whichever institutions I become affiliated with, but I am officially here to stay.

Allison A. Greco is a medical student who blogs at MD2B.

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  • http://bit.ly/gwalter gwalter

    Working for a large medical specially corporation, I have been cautioned several times regarding my online activities. In fact part of the discussion that led me to leave my last position, with a large, faith- based organization, involved some misunderstandings with social media and conversations on Twitter.

    Recently I was asked to remove a video on Youtube, that was 100% HIPPA compliant, because it made my boss’s boss “nervous.”

    I too see my social media prowess as an asset, but i know most of the world isn’t ready for this much transparency.

    • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

      Thanks for reading! Unfortunately, I think that’s where we stand as a profession right now, and part of the reason I wrote this post. I wanted to be clear, and up front with my motivations for using social media, and while it might not be the best outlook for everyone, I can be honest with myself, and my prospective employers from the start.

      • http://www.advancedskinwisdom.com Dr Emily Altman


        Whether you go into private practice or join a group, you will still want your community to know you are an authority.  When you publish on the web and people respond to your posts, repost them, etc you gain authority.  Websites like Klout.com measure a person’s authority on the web.  An interesting site.  Of course, your facebook and twitter followers are a big plus.  Having a blog counts for quite a bit, but to make a blog findable, make sure to use the right keywords so that it will be seen in searches.  Also look at Google’s Keyword Tools https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal.  Very helpful in determining the keywords to use when writing your blog.There are tons of tools out there. They can be very helpful in determining how far in cyberspace your words reach.Emily M. Altman, MDwww.advancedskinwisdom.com

      • http://bit.ly/gwalter gwalter

        Allison, I think that is a noble aspiration.  However, in the real world, not everyone appreciates this sort of candor and transparency.  For instance, when someone we bump into asks how we are – they don’t really want to know.

        A friend who works where I just submitted my resume, sent me this note today:

        “As a suggestion, I would cut back on some of your more potentially controversial posts/reposts for a bit…

        You and I both post and blog a lot so we can’t undue our trail but we can lighten up a bit for a little while. Our online personality is not exactly the same as our in person personality but it is a shame to never have the chance to share that with ____________  because they misjudge you by what they see or hear about online.
        I have no inside information on you and your interview process, I’m just offering some friendly advice. You worked hard in your previous position and I respect a great deal what you did there. I want to see you have a chance to do it again.”

        I agree with his point – but it’s going to be hard to “scale back.”

  • http://www.advancedskinwisdom.com Dr Emily Altman

    With the enormous amount of medical mis-information present on the internet, having strong, medical voices helps quite a bit.  I became engaged in social media relatively recently – only 2 years ago, but I find it extremely rewarding to share what I know.  In my opinion, the biggest no-no is making diagnoses or suggesting treatment without actually seeing and examining the patient yourself.  But having a strong web presence is definitely a plus.  I wish I started years ago.

    Emily Altman, MD, FAAD


  • Edwin Leap

    Allison, I began writing newspaper columns shortly after residency, and moved on to a specialty magazine.  Then, later, I came into blogging.  I have always been fascinated to receive notes from doctors, after I wrote something controversial, saying ‘thanks for speaking out…if I said that I’d be fired.’  I pointed this out in a Grand Rounds at the EM residency at West Virginia University, where I attended medical school. The faculty nodded.  They had known individuals dismissed for their opinions.  How tragic; and how backward!  (It’s everywhere, by the way.)  Blogging isn’t going away.  Old-school physicians (and I’m now one, 18 years into practice) need to accept this reality.  Free speech is impossible to squeeze back into a box.  I believe that’s good.  Blogging is honest, it is eye-opening, it points out things missed by mainstream media outlets and suppressed by administrators and politicians.  As such, it could be destructive and must be done with discretion and wisdom.  But it can also be transformative, and can give voice to issues, ideas and people (patients and physicians) who would otherwise have no voice at all.  Keep it up! 

    • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

      Thanks so much for sharing your insight! I agree we can’t put any one person into a “box” and dictate how he or she should practice medicine; however, I do think there is a fine line between thought-provoking and unprofessional. This same line existed long before blogging was invented, and will most likely also be applicable to whatever new technologies physicians, the public, and the media decide to use in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MedicalMileLive Jim Bush

    Social media is the communications of the day.  If it isn’t part of the curriculum for medical students already, I hope it soon will be.  New med students, especially, need to receive general best practices for social media as it relates to their profession.  With that exposure they then can take what they have learned and adapt it to the standards of any institutions where their career might take them.  You wrote a nice article Allison and I believe you will be at the forefront of communications as it applies to healthcare and social media.  All my best to you and your career.

    • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts; it’s very much the same perspective I have, and hope to convey in my posts. I hope that one day physicians who engage in social media can spend the majority of their time writing about controversial issues and current events instead of writing about blogging itself.

  • http://www.HealthcareMarketingCOE.com/ Simon Sikorski MD

    It’s not just social media anymore. Docs need to start looking at all the channels their patients are learning from. Forums, chats, discussion boards, mobile devices, mobile apps keeping track of their health data… unless physicians start reviewing all these platforms and start sharing their opinions with their patients what is good, bad, misinformed then we’ll continue being in the dark ages. I started writing on this on http://www.healthcaremarketingcoe.com/health20/ after coming back from the Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. What an amazing and inspiring event. The Patients 2.0 sessions were eye-openers. I doubt majority of physicians know who an E-Patient is.

  • Rohan Abraham

    Dear Allison, thank you for this article. I don’t practice medicine and am not in the healthcare industry (well, officially not as yet). As an outsider, I believe that I would much rather prefer a doctor who is in with technology and aware of how the internet works rather than one that stays away. This is not only related to social media participation, but also about being involved in community of doctors, discussing and sharing new facts, medicines, treatments etc. In india, doctors are not allowed to advertise and I think this platform serves as a brilliant measure to differentiate yourself especially considering the fact that there are 300 mn active internet users in this country alone.

    There are similar reactions here about the use of social media and it is a bit disappointing that the outlook also looks meek.

    I congratulate you on your keenness to stay online. Brilliant.


    • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

      Thank you so much for reading; I’m glad you enjoyed! It’s nice to hear a different perspective on the matter as well; as we progress to a system that is much more patient-centered, it is important that we consider how patients want to receive health care information; of course, I would never diagnose or give medical advice out online!

  • http://www.HealthcareMarketingCOE.com Simon Sikorski MD

    “I wish I started years ago.” – I hear this all the time. I think social media & internet should be required CMEs for doctors, seriously.

    • Rohan Abraham

      I’m guilty. I look online for almost all my medical related questions. I don’t self prescribe ever or blindly believe/ rely on what’s written there. However I am a 100 pc guilty of using the ‘knowledge’ I gain online to ask doctors questions related to my issues/ symptoms and hear her or his response to gauge how much comfort I get from the doctor.
      I’m not one to go to an unknown GP or walk into a hospital for a consultation. I usually only ever choose a doctor based on recommendations. I would probably only choose an unknown doctor if I could gauge all the above from some profile/ page/ online participation forum etc. Hence my point to Allison. It isn’t about how interactive the doctor is on the many platforms available, it’s about the doctor’s profile and whether I can see it all that allows me to get comfort that the doctor knows his stuff. I don’t care much for years or experience or where the doctors works, it’s about depth and spread of experience.
      I feel terrible sometimes because I know Iook at a doctor with extremely judging eyes (when I’m going for a consultation I mean) but once I’m past that point, I’d trust her/ him with my life without question.
      I salute you folks for having probably the toughest job out there.

  • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

    Thanks so much for reading, and sharing your experiences! I agree that as physicians we shouldn’t diagnose individual patients or give out medical advice via social media; however, developing credibility and using social media as a means for advocacy can certainly help combat the myriad of health myths out there.

  • http://twitter.com/grecoa3 Allison

    Patients 2.0 is an entirely different conversation altogether, but until physicians embrace simpler platforms such as blogging, we can’t even begin to have that conversation. Additionally, as the profession becomes more patient-centered, we should be catering to the media that our patients prefer.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonBoies Jason Boies

    I read this piece a while back on your blog, Allison.  Big congratulations to you on getting featured at KevinMD.com. :)

    I feel more emphasis should be placed on encouraging med
    students to use social media platforms regularly to complement their education and assist with their communication skills. I’m curious how having a very engaged online persona might contribute to the development of a physician’s overall bedside manner. I’d wager it would be a positive effect.

    I wish you the best of luck to you in your career, Allison.

    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community Team

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