Why be involved in social media?

June 18, 2012

When I speak with fellow physicians about my social media activity (blogging on this site and on my personal blog, Twitter, Tumblr, etc), I am often met with skepticism.  Why should we bother?  What is the point?  What value is there in adding another task to one’s busy day?

These questions are even more relevant if considered in the context of social media use outside the US–especially in developing nations and other parts of the world where internet access is not as easily available as it is here.  The #hcsmLA Twitter conversation (healthcare communications and social media in Latin America) involves a number of participants in Latin America, and issues of technology access and the digital divide (as well as the more hierarchical and paternalistic doctor/patient relationship often seen in Latin America) have been discussed in this context.  Although in the US we do not face the same barriers as in much of Latin America, there are benefits from social media that apply in both settings.

Here are some suggested reasons why physicians should be engaged on social media–even if technology is not always accessible or if the prevailing culture does not encourage engaged, informed, active patients:

  • Partnerships and collaborations: by engaging in social media, physicians can meet like-minded colleagues as well as interested (and interesting) peers in other disciplines including research, public health, and health policy.  By interacting with one another via social media, people can get a sense for where affinities and mutual interests lie.  This can then lead to further in-depth discussions that can lead to partnerships and collaborations on research projects, publications, health outreach projects, etc.  Over time, these collaborators and partners may help develop new ideas, suggest new ideas for research or practice, or encourage one’s steps in new directions.  Some of these collaborators may eventually become friends.
  • Speak the truth: there is a great deal of bad medical information out there.  If one searches a medical topic, a number of sponsored results will top the list of the search results.  Many of these sponsored links will be flawed or inaccurate.  Physicians can be a resource to their patients and their communities by bringing their expertise and experience to bear on healthcare issues, and by helping point people toward accurate and reliable resources.  Blogging or participating in TweetChats can also help ensure that accurate information is available online.
  • Stay up to date: by following trusted medical resources, physicians can keep up to date on topics including clinical practice, basic science research, and healthcare policy.  A number of journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA regularly update their Twitter feeds with recent articles focused on clinical practice and biomedical science.  Physicians First Watch posts their daily updates about hot topics in clinical medicine.  The Commonwealth Fund and the Kaiser Family Foundation regularly post updates focused on healthcare policy.  While these examples are focused on the US, other countries likely have similar useful resources.  By finding and following trusted resources, physicians will not have to go out to find information–the information is delivered directly to their social media accounts.  This simplifies the process of trying to keep up to date with a fast-moving biomedical world.
  • Broaden your horizons: conversations on social media and healthcare involve physicians, but also a number of other participants: patients, nurses, pharmacists, medical students, health policy folks, researchers, etc.  Interacting on social media allows one to learn about others’ perspectives on key issues, and can help increase one’s understanding of the issues at hand.  Especially as we promote more and more team-based care, it is important to be open to others’ approaches to care.  Expansive and open social media conversations help facilitate this learning and awareness.

I believe that one of the goals of social media engagement is to help patients become better informed, better able to participate in their care, and better able to team with their healthcare providers to develop plans of care that meet their individual needs. Having said that, even if physicians are not ready to take those steps, there are very tangible benefits from physicians’ activity in social media. I think these benefits are even more likely to be relevant in parts of the world where patients might have less access to social media, and physicians and other healthcare workers might play a larger role in the conversation. The benefits listed above would be available to any clinician who is active in social media, even if they are widely dispersed or digitally isolated in areas without much social media penetrance.

Networking, collaborations, keeping current with relevant information, and expanding one’s understanding of key issues will benefit all physicians…and their patients.


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