5 reasons why physicians should be using social media

In November 2010 the American Medical Association published a report on Professionalism in the use of Social Media. A brief summary of the paper was published in June 2011. The issues addressed by the AMA are reasonable and practical in my view. There have been some excellent pieces written about the "ethical" issues seen by others about physicians being on social media as well as reasons that physicians themselves give for not wanting to participate.

The issue has also generated some excellent thought-provoking discussion in the Digital Health LinkedIn group. As an active participant is social media, I realize its value to patients, caregivers and providers. There have been many other articles and posts about physicians and social media. I just thought it was time for me to put my perspective out there. I would like to touch on five reasons I believe that physicians should embrace social media.

1. It's where the patients are. Social media is becoming part of the healthcare landscape. Probably the largest growing sector is online health communities. I feel that physicians can gain a keener insight into patient concerns (many of which might be very eye-opening) by getting involved in social media. Physicians in social media have been found to be more highly rated by patients, so much so that engaging in social media has been recommended to improve online physician reputations.

What is interesting is that while older people (baby boomers) are OK with engaging social media to obtain information, they are far less likely to share personal health information than young people, according to a PwC Health Internet Research Survey. "More than 80 percent of individuals ages18-24 would be likely to share health information through social media, while nearly 90 percent of individuals would engage in health activities or trust information found via social media. Less than half (45 percent) of individuals ages 45-64 would be likely to share via social media, while 56 percent would be likely to engage." I believe this might change if physicians are in social media even in ways conforming to accepted guidelines. It might add legitimacy, knowledge and more trust in the space.

2. It's where hospitals and healthcare systems are. The PwC survey also stated that more than 1,200 hospitals participate in more than 4,200 social networking sites. It would behoove physicians and other providers to know what information is being supplied by their own hospitals or organizations. In this regard, they can perhaps partner with the institution and gain some knowledge about what their patients are reading online as well as perhaps provide more targeted information (most hospitals use content provided by others) by offering collaboration.

3. It makes for engaging and useful interactions with vendors and colleagues. As physicians are busier than ever, they have less time to interact with pharma and device companies (who have less and less access to providers) as well as colleagues. Social media lends itself to interactions that occur in more relaxed and customized settings. While online health communities can be a source of marketing research, they can serve as points of educational interactions with both patients and providers. Companies such as WCG, Liquid Grids and others are using sophisticated analytics to translate conversations into useful data for providers and others. One must certainly differentiate between open and closed social media sites. Open sites are ways in which physicians can either observe or interact (paying attention to the guidance cited above) with patients. Closed platforms provide a more targeted audience for vendors and serve as a forum for more relaxed (HIPAA-compliant) conversations among physicians.

4. It's social. Providing a humanistic side of oneself to the public as a physician is therapeutic to both the writer and reader. Being social is not the digital equivalent of running into a patient at the supermarket, soccer game or restaurant and having him show you a skin lesion for examination or describe a symptom. One might "lurk" or merely observe what is being discussed. Patients are more candid with each other (or even providers which aren't necessarily their own) in social media than they are in real life. Observing these discussions provides perspectives which might have been previously unknown or discounted. When I was in practice I found that it expanded my horizons. It opened my experiences to previously compartmentalized areas of the healthcare ecosystem, incorporating new ideas, beliefs and sentiments that became integrated with my daily practice.

5. It's not mandated. So much of a physician's practice is either directed toward satisfying regulatory mandates or indirectly related to them. Digital interactions with patients and colleagues might therefore be viewed as a welcome respite. It can be disease-related (as in online patient communities such as HealthTap, Wego Health, Treatment Diaries or others) or not, perhaps via LinkedIn groups representing multiple facets of healthcare. I have found interactions via Tweet chats with patient advocates and providers alike in a number of areas to be satisfying by contributing basic knowledge about navigation of the healthcare system that is both the most difficult patient problem these days and a potential contributor to morbidity and mortality. It is enlightening to realize how much a physician takes for granted how little it takes to contribute in a significant way to people's knowledge.

Participation in social media is on a person's individual time schedule and therefore is neither stressful nor imperative. It creates virtual friendships, respect and collaboration. Try it -- you might like it.

David Lee Scher is a former cardiac electrophysiologist and is an independent consultant and owner/director at DLS Healthcare Consulting, LLC, concentrating in advising digital health companies and their partnering institutions, providers and businesses. A pioneer adopter of remote cardiac monitoring, he lectures worldwide promoting the benefits of digital health technologies. Twitter: @dlschermd. He also blogs at http://davidleescher.com. He was cited as one of the 10 cardiologists to follow on Twitter and one of the top ten blogs on healthcare technology.