Go where the patients are: Why this doctor is active on social media

If knowledge is power, then content (in proper context) is king. Why am I online blogging, pushing content through my website and even interacting on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and many other sites?  Because my patients are there. Increasingly, they are utilizing the Internet to self-diagnose; to look for “second opinions” from peers and friends; to research a physician, recommended treatment, or hospital; or to find the latest information on their disease.

Studies suggests that patients forget more than 50 percent of what they are told in the doctor’s office. Add to that misremembering or misinterpretation, and the information holes grow even larger. What happens to the holes when these individuals get home? Research shows that consumers trust the recommendations of peers or friends far above those of any advertisement. And where are people interacting with those friends? Where are they searching? In many instances, online. They are sharing useful information, and this includes health concerns, treatment protocols, and medications. When patients feel they can’t turn to their doctor for answers, pulling information from the Internet is an easy, efficient, and logical choice.

Medicine and healthcare are undergoing massive changes; more and more regulations and obligations eat into physicians’ clinic time. Reimbursements have dropped, and as a result many doctors have felt they needed to increase their appointment load and decrease the time they spend on each. For patients, that translates to less time with their physician, less learning, more questions, more doubt, and sadly, more fear. Their antidote is Google.

The root word for doctor is “docere,” or “to teach,” and our patients are making decisions based on what they read online. We as physicians have a moral obligation to be sure that the information they are receiving is accurate. If we do not have the time to teach our patients while they are in the clinic, we need to be present where they are to address their residual questions, hesitancy, and fears (often due to lack of knowledge), and also to aid them through their medical decision-making process. In short, we need to be active in producing or curating online medical content to aid our patients.

Doctors often believe that they need to spend hours upon hours coming up with content; they believe there is too much risk involved in “tweeting” or putting a post on Facebook. Yet most studies show that physician content and social media interactions are perfectly appropriate. You know the rules — follow them. You do not need to be an active writer; you already answer the same questions day in and day out. Why not just sit and dictate the answer to those questions and post them online? Don’t want to hire a professional? Don’t. Tumblr, Posterous, and other such sites make it simple to set up a site for content in minutes. Still don’t want to create content? Fine — then share links to accurate, actionable, and useful information on Twitter or Facebook.

We are physicians; our job is to lead patients toward health. We owe it to them to be sure that the information they are reading is of the same quality as we would give in our office, or want to get if (or, rather, when) we looked in the mirror and saw a patient staring back.

Howard Luks is an orthopedic surgeon who blogs at his self-titled site, Howard J. Luks, MD. This article originally appeared in The Doctor Blog.

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