This surgeon embraces social media.  Here’s why she converted.

Waaaah-Hoo!!
– Slim Pickins as Maj. ‘King’ Kong, riding the bomb in “Dr. Strangelove”

I am converted. Like many doctors, I was very leary of social media, wary about using it, skeptical of its professional value. Especially Twitter, but really all of the platforms. No longer: I have embraced social media, and it has embraced me.

I feel a little bit like Dr. Strangelove, only the subtitle is now “How I Learned To  Stop Worrying and Love Social Media.”

Like most converts, I find myself an enthusiastic proselyte, spreading the good word to friends and colleagues, regaling them with my new-found experiences using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like. Discovering more sites and platforms, like Sermo, Doximity, Docphin, and Medstro, to name a few. (Disclosure: I have no financial or other arrangement with any of these, but have written for both Sermo and Medstro, and am a discussion panelist later this month on Medstro.) The list goes on and on, and keeps growing. Websites and apps abound; they all go mobile, so much content to explore. So much time to waste!

“Waste of time” is the most common and scathing criticism leveled at social media by my physician friends and colleagues who have not yet seen the light. It is true: One could get lost for hours. But you can set limits. I find that when I have gotten carried away and eventually come up for air, my getting drawn in was because I have been engrossed in the content, the opinion pieces, blogs, journal articles, and medical news. I have been connecting, networking, even discussing important topics (as with a virtual journal club).  Social media has yielded much more value and content per unit of time spent than the same time spent rifling through a journal, or surfing the Internet, cozying up to a textbook. I might also add that I am much more likely now to engage in reading this kind of content via social media than before, when faced with the stack of journals next to my desk.

There is a growing body of content — meetings, lectures, webinars, articles — extolling the benefits and raising the cautions for physicians venturing in to the social media landscape. Surgical blogger Skeptical Scalpel was published recently in a scholarly journal, summarizing the benefits of blogging and tweeting, with excellent advice as well. This recent post by The Doctors Company is also an excellent introduction and guide to social media for doctors, collaborating with KevinMD who himself provides rich content and advice on his own blog. (Disclosure: Several of my own blog posts have been re-shared via KevinMD.) Both of these posts are a great introduction. I urge everyone to avail themselves of any of the abundant seminars and lectures introducing doctors to social media, whether at medical meetings or via physician-focused websites and platforms like Sermo (the sponsor of the most recent webinar I attended). There is rich content on the Internet, and even on social media itself.

It is important to be careful of the pitfalls, but those are not sufficient to bar adoption of social media or prevent use. Be mindful of privacy and HIPAA, and aware that content once posted can never really be deleted or retracted. Be careful that private and professional content do not mix, although the reality is that there really isn’t any such thing as truly private content (except maybe for internal messaging applications, but even this content is likely “discoverable”). Cautionary tales and horror stories abound. In reality, this is not terribly different than how we comport ourselves as professionals IRL (in real life), on a smaller scale, with a smaller audience, and less exposure than the Internet and social media.

The benefits are pretty compelling, and I broadly characterize them as scholarly content, news, networking, and opinion. But one final and surprising benefit has not been written about that much, and it has been a pleasant discovery. That discovery is the sense of professional community I have found via social media. I noticed, bit by bit, as I began to blog and tweet, I have been able to find my own community of peers, my “kindred spirits” (borrowing from Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables). Like the orphaned Anne, it is important to identify and find one’s own community, which in turn helps navigate the (professional) world, find meaning, support and sympathy, a place to share.

In medicine, this sense of community was fostered by the formation of our medical societies and organizations, even if it was not their primary purpose. But times have changed, and interest and involvement in these organizations has been on the decline for myriad reasons. The traditional construct of meetings and conferences, taking time away from patients and practices, is not viable for many physicians. Time is limited, and expenses add quickly, so the numbers of meetings physicians are able to attend are limited as they are compelled to be frugal with both time and money. In addition, these traditional methods of connecting — for networking, communicating/collaborating, and even educating (CME/continuing medical education is a big part of medical meetings) — are viewed as cumbersome and less relevant to doctors today, especially the younger generations.

Therefore, I also see social media as part of the solution to reestablish this sense of community and collegiality among doctors. Technology and the platforms being developed and tailored to physicians may re-create that space, where communication and collaboration can grow.

As doctors enter the world of social media in greater numbers, it is clear that rules and regulations, codes of conduct, parameters and boundaries will be established and enforced. We need be a part of this, as participants, so that we are not disenfranchised by others who would do this for us. We need to protect our voices, our communication, and ultimately our patients.

Times are changing. Change happens all the time, all around, inside and out. It is random, with no direction, both good and bad, like genetic mutations. This is our opportunity to engage and participate, to direct the change, and to make it progress.

Kathryn A. Hughes is a general surgeon who blogs at Behind the Mask.

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