Successful doctors will find meaningful ways to use social media to engage patients and colleagues

Look me up. I’m on Twitter (@MattDynamic). This isn’t particularly remarkable. In fact, there are 313 million other active Twitter users. But for me, it is remarkable and a major departure from my past behavior.

As a resident, I am bombarded by messages about the dangers of Twitter and, more broadly, social media. I have sat through many HIPAA and human resource meetings with dire warnings to not post anything pertaining to patient care online. We are counseled, that the best course of action is to avoid social media altogether.  If we choose not to do this, we are told to maximizing privacy settings, not using our real names, and avoid social media contact with patients. I am a naturally private person, so this has always resonated with me. I have made every effort to leave no digital footprints. But what if this isn’t the best solution for physicians and our patients?

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Society for Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES). I had the privilege of sitting through an excellent talk by author and speaker Dave Kerpen (@DaveKerpen) on being “likable.” Misunderstanding what he meant by likable, I anticipated another talk on how surgeons’ egos and attitudes impede patient care.  Instead, he talked about engaging patients and colleagues through a wide variety of means, one of the most significant being social media.  I was struck by all the ways that doctors are interacting with each other and with patients through social media and all the potential to improve these interactions in the future.  More significantly, however, I was impressed that this is a revolution that is going to happen with or without us.

Public evaluations and ratings are already a reality, whether we realize it or not. These sources are likely to play a major role in physician selection and reimbursement in the near future.  Some of these evaluations will be formal, such as outcome measurements which will be publicly available.  But many of them will be far less formal.  Healthgrades and a number of other websites already allow patients to rate their doctors on a large number of highly subjective criteria.  It will soon be impossible to avoid having a social media presence.  In response to this, we need to shift our focus towards maintaining and managing our social media presence.

Even maintaining online resources, however, will soon be insufficient. The most successful and influential surgeons in the years to come, will find meaningful ways to use social media to reach and engage patients and colleagues. These new tools should not be feared.  Like a newly developed medication with great potential, they should be adopted and adapted to meet the needs of providers and patients.  While they have the potential for great harm, they also hold great promise. A physician who fails to adopt new technology and new procedures in the wards or operating room quickly becomes out of date, and the same will be true with our engagement of social media.

We are already seeing this revolution at many academic medical centers.  Physicians who are leaders in their fields are posting articles and opinions on Twitter, producing podcasts, and maintaining Facebook groups.  But far too few of us, especially in the community setting, are listening and even fewer are joining in to create richer and more meaningful content.

I still don’t fully understand hashtags, and I’m struggling to figure out how to find friends on Yelp (I signed up for that one too), but I have come to realize that we are headed towards a future where we will increasingly interact with peers and patients through social media. And I want to help shape that future. So follow me on Twitter, message me on Facebook, label me a colleague on Doximity, or connect with me on LinkedIn. I’ll be on all of them, looking for ways to help my profession and my patients.

Matt Dull is a surgery resident. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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