3 reasons why patients should use social media

There’s been a lot of talk over the last year or so about the benefits (and some drawbacks) of physicians using social media. Social media use by physicians has become so widespread here in Canada that the Canadian Medical Association has actually developed guidelines to help physicians understand the rules of engagement on the web. But while there has been a lot of attention paid to physicians and social media, we’ve seen a lot less about the benefits for patients.  The following are 3 reasons why we think more physicians should encourage their patients to use social media:

1. Their healthcare providers, clinics and hospitals are online and ready to interact with them. Whether via Twitter or Facebook, more healthcare providers and health organizations are embracing social media. Patients can now follow their physicians to learn more about their clinical work and research interests. For example, Dr. Ryan Madanick is a Gastroenterologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interested in refractory gastrointestinal diseases and medical education. The content posted by Dr. Madanick on his Twitter account is highly relevant to patients and a great source of information. Many health clinics (e.g. the Toronto Malvern Community Health Center, TAIBU) can also be found online, micro-blogging useful patient information like wait times, specialty clinics (e.g. flu shots) and announcements regarding services. Several hospitals, like the Massachusetts General Hospital, use social media for similar purposes. Finally, various allied health professionals, like Harrison Reed, an Ohio-based Physician Assistant, are readily present in the blogosphere as well.

2. Equip patients with knowledge: the latest studies, news and developments in health. Patients who customize their social media experience with the right mix of ‘channels’ of information can reap the rewards of news and perspectives on the latest studies, developments and controversies in health. Patient-friendly health information sites (e.g. Kids Health), health advocacy organizations (e.g. the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and health journalists (e.g. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta), are just a few of the groups who effectively use social media to spread their message. Social media has given patients the most power they have ever had, to better understand how to optimize their health.

3. Patients sharing their stories in virtual support groups.  Social media has provided an online environment for patients to discuss their health. Possibly the area of greatest potential, more patients are using it to share their stories including their rises and pitfalls, side-effects of therapies and the social and psychological aspects of their illnesses, to name a few. Online chat streams for patients with breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of a growing list that are becoming more popular.

With patients becoming increasingly social media-savvy, it is safe to say that this phenomenon is here to stay. As a public policy initiative, the use of smart social media may in fact be a useful intervention to encourage patients to pursue healthy lifestyles while relieving pressures on health budgets. For this to happen, more research and analysis is required to better connect patients with their healthcare providers and to provide them with evidence-based, accurate information. As with any information on the web, not all ‘channels’ of information are reliable sources for patients (we’re looking at you, Dr. Oz). This is why physicians require training to help their patients navigate the realm of social media, keeping confidentiality and safety in mind. Guidelines must be established to protect patients who participate in online support groups, as many are already.

So the next time you offer counseling or education to a patient in an emergency department, medical ward or clinic, think about the impact that a patient-centered social media strategy could have. After all, increased patient knowledge leads to improved care and eventually, power.

Naheed Dosani is a family medicine resident and Jeremy Petch is a policy researcher. Both write at Healthy Debate, and can  found @NaheedD and @jeremypetch respectively, on Twitter.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • azmd

    I don’t think anyone disagrees at all that the internet provides a rich range of possibilities for patient education and communication. Websites and online support groups are particularly good resources to which I frequently direct my patients, the ones who have internet access.

    But the piece above does not really address the single biggest barrier to providing that sort of education to our patients: payment for the time it takes to discuss internet resources with the patient. I know from personal experience that it’s at least a 5 minute conversation, added onto the education that is already being provided. Those five minutes add up fast over the course of a day and no one want to pay for them. When more sincere attempts are made to reimburse physicians for time spent educating their patients, that’s when you’ll see innovative methods of patient education being moved forward.

    As long as the expectation remains that the education should be provided by me tacking an extra hour onto my day, an hour that means that I don’t sit down to dinner with my children, the progress we make in this area will be limited.

  • http://twitter.com/MHudson_BusSvcs Marlene Hudson

    As a consumer, medical interpreter, and marketing/pr rep, I can see both sides of the issue. While reputable providers may be able to share reliable information meant to enlighten and enhance the lives of the public, it is human nature to be drawn to the “senationalism” of high-profile media personalities, especially if it gives an impression of having a “quick fix” or easy solution and, as such, believe what these sites are saying or promoting. I encourage my clients to proceed with caution when using social media – keep to the facts, use good references for follow-up, and take measures to not be looked upon as a “media celebrity” that may make them look unprofessional. Social media should not be looked upon as a means to quick fixes or to replace an office visit/consult with a reputable care provider.

  • Suzi Q 38

    I think it is good for any physician just starting out or wants to advertise a bit.
    Why NOT? The physician can list the specialty, type of patient and services he or she provides, insurances accepted, etc. He/she can also list location hours, and any general health information.
    As far as treating people on the internet, I think not.
    Just ask the patient to come in.
    As far as posting the pictures of the physician and his/her family in the Caribbean last spring, I think not. Maybe post the fundraising activity for breast cancer or M.S.
    You get the idea. If you offer free nurse led diabetes classes on Saturday mornings, this can be posted.

  • http://twitter.com/JockPutney Jock Putney

    Docs, I think you both hit the nail on the head here. Social media and mobile health are here to stay and we need to move into the next phase: increasing patient adoption. As noted in a recent Pew study, 70% of online health information seekers report that they still turn to their physician for serious questions and do NOT count on those unreliable sources of medical information referenced in the piece. Now, physicians need to make
    patients (and their late adopter colleagues) comfortable and secure with using social media as a health resource. Provider-directed social tools are storming the market in the U.S. and leaders across the healthcare industry need to help get that message out.

  • http://twitter.com/cancer2gether Facing Cancer

    After my breast cancer diagnosis, I found connections with women my age by going online. It was through finding the FCT page that I really began my interaction beyond just blogging. For me, being online fit the support I needed – it was come and go, anytime, any place, and it grew into a community. ~Catherine