What will it take to get physicians using social media in healthcare?

(This blog was originally published on the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media blog, 12/6/11)


Medical education is based on the foundation of science.  Undergraduate premedical majors are required to take a number of science courses in order to be considered qualified applicants for medical school.  Once in medical school, students are exposed through all four years to scientific research: we are taught about seminal basic science experiments that helped establish the biochemical mechanisms, and were are taught about the process of clinical research and how the scientific method has helped develop current medical treatments.

At the same time, as we are steeped in the tradition of science, we do not always do a good job of following the scientific method.  One of the greatest examples is the continued practice of providing antibiotic prescriptions for viral illnesses, despite the clear knowledge that antibiotics will not affect how quickly patients improve.  Even though we are trained to approach questions from the scientific perspective, human nature can impact how reliably we follow evidence-based, scientifically-grounded recommendations.  Often time, the rationales given include either the fact that one might be uncertain about the nature of the illness being treated and/or the claim that patients expect antibiotics and that it is easier (and more customer-friendly) to just give patients what they expect as opposed to standing by the evidence.

The truth is that medical practice is a combination of science and human nature.  Hopefully we lean towards the evidence more often than not, but you cannot deny the human part of the process.  Add in the fact that many physicians are employers, small business owners, and breadwinners, and the balance can become more complicted.  As a result, many of the decisions we make are based on considerations from both sides of the issue.

I believe that this will also be true of efforts that attempt to engage physicians in communicating via social media.  To date, efforts to encourage physicians to engage in social media because it is interesting, fun, etc do not seem to have much traction.  I propose that it will require showing that social media has measurable benefits to patient care (scientific argument) and that it improves practice efficiency and/or practice income (human nature argument) in order to increase physician engagement.

  • If research programs that are well-designed, double-blinded studies investigate whether various approaches to social media engagement improve patient outcomes of some sort (disease-oriented outcomes like blood pressure or diabetes control, patient-oriented outcomes such as a global measurement of wellness) and show a beneficial result, then we will have scientifically-based evidence showing that social media can improve healthcare.  This will appeal to our self-perception as scientists.
  • At the same time, if it can be demonstrated that using social media improves how medical practices work (fewer calls back, more new patients, more satisfied patients, etc) and if they can increase the efficiency of medical practices (thus reducing costs), then we will have information that impacts the human nature side of the decision: physicians will have more profitable practices, or will be able to hire more staff, or will be able to offer additional services to their patients.  This appeals to the business/professional side of a physician’s worldview.

Needless to say, these two goals are not mutually exclusive.  Often times, interventions that improve medical outcomes also improve practice efficiency…and could become more important as medicine moves towards paying for quality of care as opposed to intensity or quantity of care.  But I think it will take arguments that satisfy our scientific training as well as business needs that will increase physicians’ involvement in social media.


3 Responses to What will it take to get physicians using social media in healthcare?

  1. I agree. I consult for Medical Practices and the first thing I am asked is the ROI of social media. My reply is think of the ROI of your mother, father, or family members. They have value, and that relationship is meaningful. If your family asked for a favor, or asked you to buy something from them you would due to the relationship you have with them.

    Social media is a relationship building tool. Use it to build a relationship and people will come back to your practice over and over. They will refer their friends and family to you in an organic, easy way through social media. Why call you with a phone number of my doctor when I can just drop you a link on Facebook?

    The real key in my experience is driving patients over to social media to engage with. Many practices do not understand how to properly do that.

    Love the article and so glad I found this site, I will make it a regular stop on my daily tour of the web!

    -Eric Paul

    • richmonddoc says:

      Thanks for the comments.

      It’s interesting–I didn’t write this post to focus on ROI…though I suppose that would be one end result if we focused on practice improvement.

      I think that beyond any formal ROI, the value of improving practices and processes will have its on value. If it makes life easier, I think you’ll see an uptake in social media adoption.

  2. mark says:

    Mark I agree with the need to extend the methods of scientific research into the assessment of social media as a tool to improve outcomes and increase physician engagement. I would add the application of knowledge translation (KT) into the process because as a tool it improves the application of knowledge. This is what you are ultimately calling for, the improved application of knowledge into clinical practice.

    Simply defined KT is “the exchange, synthesis, and ethically-sound application of knowledge—within a complex set of interactions among researchers and users—to accelerate the capture of the benefits of research for Canadians through improved health, more effective services and products, and a strengthened health care system (CIHR, 2004)”

    This is a tool to help close the gap between practice and evidence. Further more KT looks not only at the physician but at the patient, caregiver, other allied HCP, etc since all medicine is practiced within a complex system/network.

    There are many clinical trials that are measuring KT as part of the clinical investigation. There are 40 trials listed at clinicaltrails.gov that have KT as part of the http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=knowledge+translation I would like to see social media included in investigator trials along with KT as a way to determine value and outcomes. This would begin to drive the proof that SM can improve outcomes and physician effectiveness.

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