How social media helped this medical student

In the course of our work as doctors we will undoubtedly witness events that change lives, but coming into medical school I never realized how directly some of these events would change my life.

Often in medicine we see people at the worst possible time. Patients are sick or grieving and rarely happy to be in our presence, no matter how great we might think we are. Usually, they are experiencing things we’ve never experienced, things we understand on a molecular level, but not on a personal level. We don’t know what it’s like, so we draw on our experiences, the experiences of past patients and the knowledge we’ve gained in our training, then do our best to play the role of both healer and comforter.

But, as students, our pool of past patients with similar experiences to draw on may be limited. How do we ensure we are great providers for our patients when we have absolutely no clue how they feel? When our experiences are limited what do we base our actions on?

I believe social media has a role here.

Because I’m interested in OB-GYN and reproductive endocrinology I keep track, via Twitter and blogs, of several women’s journeys through infertility and pregnancy loss. I have silently watched from the sidelines as they supported each other through loss, openly shared their heartache with strangers and expressed what they medical professionals had done, or not done, for them while they were hurting.

When I happened to be the first provider into the room to see a woman who was miscarrying, I wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. I’ve never been through pregnancy, but it was almost like I had an army of compassionate friends providing me with insight I could not have had otherwise.

Without these women I would have asked a list of questions and immediately left that room, because I would have been uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say without making things worse.

Instead, I knew this patient likely wanted someone to listen, that she might benefit from hearing this wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could have done differently or better. I understood the importance of letting her know she was allowed to feel however she felt, whether that be devastated, numb or even relieved. She needed to hear from someone that she was allowed to grieve, that feelings of loss were valid and that, even though I had no idea on a personal level what she was experiencing, I was going to do everything I could to support her.

Without trying, without being paid, without PowerPoints or lectures, these women online taught me how to be a compassionate caretaker in a situation I did not understand.

As I walked out of my patient’s room that day I knew she had a long road ahead of her, but I was confident I had helped her. I left realizing that, without social media, the night would have gone quite differently. I left knowing nothing in medical school would have prepared me to be confident enough to begin to handle this situation I could not possibly understand.

Most importantly, I left knowing she had helped me more than I helped her, because she had opened my eyes to the fact that everyone is a teacher, even on the Internet.

Medical school teaches us how to handle situations we can control, ones we can fix or change or at least slow down – not how to handle emotionally-heavy situations where a negative outcome is inevitable and immediate.  Only experiences teaches that.

Danielle Jones is a medical student who blogs at Mind on Medicine.

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

    This is a great story, Danielle.

    If there is any group of professionals poised to take advantage of social media channels and share some truly interesting stories, it’s healthcare professionals. 

    Really enjoyed reading this article and best of luck.

    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community Team
    http://www.Radian6.com/

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

    Excellent article.  “…she had opened my eyes to the fact that everyone is a teacher..”.  I really like that statement.  Embracing social media, from credible sources, accelerates our knowledge base and I think support groups are at the top of the list when it comes to social networks.

    • http://MindOnMed.com Danielle Jones

      Thank you!

  • http://dogspotkc.blogspot.com/ Rachel H.

    I invite you to also witness a drug-free birth. I think it will change your opinion on women’s bodies and what we can do without intervention.

    • http://MindOnMed.com Danielle Jones

      I wish you hadn’t been so quick to assume my opinion is that women can’t do much on their own! I’ve actually seen a drug free birth by a woman delivering her 4th child and I whole-heartedly believe in and support a woman’s ability to birth naturally if she so chooses. I have a great amount of faith in the bodies of our sex to birth a child without intervention. :) 

    • http://MindOnMed.com Danielle Jones

      P.S. Clicked over to your blog from here – your daughter is beautiful. That picture of her in the yellow outfit at the picnic table melted my heart – that grin! You must be so proud!

  • Chris_Wigley1

    So often when we hear “Social Media” we think of Facebook, Twitter and now Google + . As a patient with COPD I have used a variety of social media, however for a specific disease I find the support group forums and support group listservers which can be found on websites such as http://www.copdcanada.ca and http://www.emphysema.net/bindex.asp.

  • http://MindOnMed.com Danielle Jones

    Thanks so much!

  • http://twitter.com/PracticalWisdom LIsa Fields & Asso.

    The most powerful act of kindness we can ever give another person is simply to listen to them. Danielle, I’m certain this woman will never forget the kind and compassionate medical professional who listened to her. There is a great deal of talk right now about the importance of empathy in medicine. There are many ways to learn empathy and you accomplished this goal though social media. 

    Dr. @larrychu:disqus  organizing chairman of the 4th World Congress on Social Media and Web 2.0 in Health, Medicine and Biomedical Research provided a ePatient panel discussion because he believes Physicians need to have the opportunity to learn and listen from patients.. This might have been the first time epatients have ever been invited and even given scholarships to attend a medical conference. 

    As an Adult Educator I’m going to suggest an assignment for you. I think your teachers, the woman who chose to be transparent and brave, deserve to know how much you have learned from them. So many times patients share though Social Media for the same way they do in “real life.” They share because they have a deep desire to help someone else. 

    When we are weak, we are strong. 

    I think you have now become an “Official #HCSM Ambassador.”  

    Disclosure: I was a member of the epatient panel #med2 @stanford 
     . 

  • Anonymous

    Hello Danielle,

    I think this is a lovely story. It is something I have been interested in for several years. I blogged about how I was encouraging medical students to access patient stories in blogs and forums back here:
    http://wishfulthinkinginmedicaleducation.blogspot.com/2008/12/students-learning-from-patients-online.html

    Fortunately I won a small grant to do some research on what students gained from this and am writing that up now.

    What I am really interested in now is how we can capture and amplify the voices that we don’t traditionally here online (or often in medical education) – those living in poverty, or marginalised and vulnerable groups. Angela Towle emailed today about a project going on in Vancouver to try and bring these voices into medical education.
    https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=MEDICAL-EDUCATION;7207ad63.1110

    It would take great care and sensitivity but it would be wonderful if they could also be shared with the rest of the world. There is always a tension between privacy and publicity, but I’m hoping we can do great things.

    AM