Social media sites can be a boon or a burden—or both simultaneously—depending on how physicians use them. The trick, experts say, is to make the sites work for you rather than vice versa.
According to a June 2014 study by MedData Group, 54% of physicians use social media for professional purposes. Of those:
- 40% use it to keep up with healthcare news;
- 33% use it to engage with peers;
- 20% use it to market their practice; and
- 7% use it to provide thought leadership to their patients.
Dr. Stacy Loeb (@LoebStacy) has a similar take on its value. As assistant professor of urology and population health at New York University, as well as a host of Doctor Radio on Sirius XM 81, Loeb considers Twitter a vital tool and uses it every day. However, she had to come around.
She became interested while giving a lecture about prostate biopsies several years ago in Australia, when someone in attendance relayed a question from a Twitter user in Canada.
“I thought, my gosh, people are remotely participating in medical conferences around the world,” Loeb says. She is now one of the most active social media users of the American Urological Association.
Loeb suggests doctors fear social media for two reasons: It will be a waste of time or they will get in trouble. “Those are the two concerns I’ve heard the most,” Loeb says. However, social media done right shouldn’t result in those issues.
Loeb actually promotes Twitter as a time saver because it puts short blurbs from all the news and research she needs in one place, which beats reviewing multiple journals or email synopses.
“A key is you have to do it in times that would otherwise be wasted in order for it to make you more efficient,” she says. Loeb checks Twitter on the subway to and from work, and sometimes while waiting in lines or elevators, etc. -- and that’s enough.
Aside from using social media to follow conferences, news and research, she participates in a urology journal club. She notes social media journal clubs differ from more traditional hospital journal clubs because they can include people from around the world, and the author often participates.
Social media networking is unique because it erases geographic boundaries and levels the playing field, allowing everyone from medical students to chairs at top hospitals to interact. “I’ve met so many other urologists, healthcare professionals, journalists, stakeholders, patient advocates, you name it, through Twitter,” Loeb says.
Her advice is to simply take control of your experience by sticking to your interests and following and un-following whoever you want.
Loeb sees high value for social media in advocacy, such as during tweet chats for prostate cancer awareness months or when legislation would benefit from professional input.
“It’s a huge forum to share your views,” Loeb says. “You used to have to write to your Congressman but now you can Tweet at them and whoever else you want. They may or may not write back but you do have instant access, and if it gains momentum, that is a powerful way to drive change.”
In another example of physician advocacy, pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson (@SeattleMamaDoc) turned to social media to educate people about vaccines. "To me, it seemed that I was not going to be the pediatrician and advocate that I wanted to be if I continued to stay just in the exam room," she told Physicians Practice.
Loeb does not directly market via social media, partly because it isn’t necessary given the academic nature of her work, and partly because she isn’t a fan of it.
“I sometimes view that with skepticism because I haven’t seen it done well,” she says.
As for communicating with patients or the general public, Loeb recommends following a social media best practices policy from a major medical group, as in her case, the AUA. Typical recommendations boil down to maintaining professionalism and only sharing general information about medicine or your practice—never giving specific medical advice to an individual other than to call the office. Even publicly acknowledging a person is your patient could create a HIPAA issue, healthcare attorney Ericka L. Adler told Physicians Practice.
Loeb sees the medical social media world as on fire. “It’s blowing up and it’s been documented in our field of urology,” she says. “Participation just goes up every year.”
And while sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram have become mainstream, there will always be new trends to raise eyebrows and test limits. One such new trend is “Figure 1,” a small but growing social network “where doctors swap gross pics of patients,” as Wired describes it. However, as physician and Figure 1 co-founder Josh Landy argues, the site isn’t just about sharing oddities, but about health professionals educating one another and collaborating on diagnoses. A feature of the app called Paging even allows users who need urgent diagnostic assistance to notify relevant specialists.
Loeb is confident people will continue developing more ideas on how social media can be leveraged. “The potential utility continues to expand in ways we may not have even imagined two or three years ago,” she says. “I think the sky is the limit.”