Social media stretches boundaries for physicians and patients

Physicians are harnessing the power of social media to do some pretty incredible things like diagnosing a patient on a different continent or being able to provide life-saving information in seconds.

The majority of the time, however, the biggest benefit to both the patient and the doctor is that social media opens up another line of communication between them – a rarity given that, outside an office visit, such a connection usually doesn't exist.

Social media also enables doctors to talk with each other. It provides a way for physicians to better collaborate or consult on a diagnosis or to determine if a procedure is worthwhile, said Howard Luks, MD, chief of sports medicine and arthroscopy at Westchester Medical Center and associate professor of orthopedic surgery at New York Medical College.

According to Josh Umbehr, MD, a family physician in Wichita, Kan., social media allows physicians to “start a conversation” even though it may have to continue via e-mail or phone.

“I have a network of family physicians in very remote areas who will direct message me about a case to see whether a patient needs a referral to a specialist that is many miles away. They [typically] want to know whether a treatment is necessary,” said Luks. “I have frequently been able to help guide them.” Luks estimated that 70-80 percent of the time patients have not required a follow-up visit, saving them a trip and a lot of money.

Luks cited a memorable case: “A reporter in a remote mountainous region of Pakistan reached out to me for a complex orthopedic issue.” Luks said a local physician had operated on this individual unsuccessfully more than once. Using Twitter and e-mail he was able to assist the doctor to come up with a surgical plan and was then able to aid in the operation from his desk. “The possibilities are endless,” commented Luks.

Umbehr sees social media as another way to extend the conversation he has with his patients. Umbehr is a family physician at AtlasMD, a concierge practice – but not your typical one. Members pay a flat monthly fee that is based on age, instead of tiered by services offered. Aside from home visits, AtlasMD offers and technology visits that include communications using Skype, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and text. “We are not limited to one conversation,” Umbehr noted. “Life happens between visits.”

Umbehr recently received a direct message on Twitter in the middle of the night from a patient and spouse on a cruise ship in Asia who were experiencing swelling in their feet. At that moment he happened to be up and was able to respond right away. However, he pointed out that patients “don't expect a response right away on text or Twitter. They can call if they need an immediate response.” Umbehr emphasized, “They know that we are there for them.”

“We have no other way to communicate with patients between checkups,” said Natasha Burgert, MD, who practices at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Mo., and is the group’s social media administrator. Social media is an “incredibly manageable tool to augment what you are trying to accomplish in your practice,” added Burgert. Her practice often uses Facebook or Twitter to address a common question that physicians might be hearing from their patients. And because not all patients follow the practice via Facebook or Twitter, a link on the practice website provides a way for patients to get more information.

Burgert said the practice's goal in using Facebook and Twitter is to provide “an information feed for patients.” For example, a recent post about keeping children younger than two years old in rear-facing carseats provided parents with information “very relevant to their decision-making process” and “could potentially save a life,” added Burgert.

Burgert is also the author of content on The site is an independent entity from Pediatric Associates, she noted, but “everything I write about is driven by my patients' questions and concerns.”

 As these physicians demonstrate, social media continues to surface in new healthcare areas at a rapid pace.