December 10, 2010
Social media and physicians: A good pair, but guidelines for use needed
In 2004, Kevin Pho, MD, an internist in private practice in Nashua, N.H., launched a blog to discuss breaking medical news. At first, his expectations were low.
Fast forward to 2010. Pho’s blog, KevinMD.com, now averages 310,000 page views per month. It has launched him to superstar status in the realm of physician bloggers. His online presence has expanded to popular social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. He is regularly sought out for commentary in national media. His blog is one example of the current power of social media.
“We needed a way for physicians to offer commentary quickly for patients to know how medical news affects them,” Pho told HemOnc Today. “Whenever a drug is recalled or there are changes in cancer screening recommendations, for example, I can provide that context on my blog, which can be dynamically updated at the speed of news break.”
In November, the American Medical Association created a policy about professionalism in the use of social media. Its guidelines include: maintaining standards of confidentiality; using privacy settings to safeguard personal information; and maintaining appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship. In addition, the guidelines suggest that physicians bring any perceived unprofessional content on behalf of their colleagues to their attention and, if the colleagues do not take action, to bring the matter to the appropriate authorities. Lastly, the guidelines advise physicians that their actions online may negatively affect their reputations and medical career.
From the Mayo Clinic creating a Center for Social Media to a 2009 Manhattan Research survey revealing that 35% of the US adult population uses social media outlets for health and medical purposes, mounting evidence suggests one certainty: Social media is here to stay.
One of the ways its presence is felt is that social media has made health care more transparent, Pho said.
“By definition, social media encourages a two-way interaction, so it gives patients a voice. Not only can patients look behind the curtain and see what a physician thinks, but they can also respond to it,” he said. “There is a lot more interaction, and that barrier between the patient and health care provider has come down with social media.”
It used to be that the physician was the sole controller of health information, but social media has changed this role, according to Bryan Vartabedian, MD, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital. He runs a blog called 33charts.com.
“The biggest thing that social media has done is to empower patients,” Vartabedian said. “For the better part of modern civilization, health information has been under tight control of physicians. With the open access, patients now have unlimited access to information, which puts them in a unique position. The role of the physician is being completely redefined in the face of social media.”
A lot of inaccurate information exists on the Internet, and social media is one way for physicians to provide reputable sources of information to their patients, Pho said. Social media also provides an avenue for patients to give feedback on the physician’s viewpoints.
“Having that guidance on the Internet is tremendously helpful for both the physician and the patient,” Pho said. “If patients don’t like what you have to say, they’re more inclined to say so via social media. Seeing things from a patient’s perspective is definitely illuminating, and it helps me become a better doctor.”
Rob Lamberts, MD, a primary care physician in Augusta, Ga., maintains the blog Musings of a Distractible Mind (distractible.org), through which he talks about many issues, not just medical topics. He said his blog provides a voice that he would otherwise not have in the professional world, where many people, including other physicians such as those in academic medicine, do not understand the issues unique to private practice, where doctors see patients all day, every day. He said his blog has given him a far-reaching platform for his opinions.
“The biggest change is that patients are communicating with people other than their own doctors, including other patients with the same disease or other doctors with various viewpoints. People get a truer perspective of things,” Lamberts said. “The interaction through social media between doctors, patients and nurses across the country and even the world has been a very positive experience.”
Lamberts said he remains unsure of the overall effect social media will have on health care.
“It’s like watching a movie. … You can’t take the perspective of a single blogger,” he said. “You have to be willing to look at it as part of a bigger picture. I don’t think people are doing this as much as they should.”
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