Like it or not, social media plays a very large role in modern society. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other social media outlets are enormous. They can be pervasive and intrusive and they seem to have their share of scandals and controversy. Privacy is often a concern. But does that means we should be afraid of them? Or can social media in medicine be a good thing and used to our advantage?

What is social media?

You probably know the answer already as a) you live in 2020, and b) you are reading this article, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock for most of your life here goes. Social media is officially described as “Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking” – oxford dictionary.

A pretty broad statement which probably covers the majority, if not the entirety of the internet.

When I refer to social media in this article it’s with respect to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and the use of blog websites.

Why are we even talking about social media in medicine?

We know that social media plays a huge role in modern-day life. There’s no denying it, and like many things in this world, it’s either use it or lose it. Social media can be a very useful tool for medical professionals, allow the user to reach literally billions of people are the flick of a switch. Let’s take the Novelcorona virus as an example. It’s all we are hearing about at the moment.

But how are doctors and nurses hearing about it? Well mostly from Social Media. How are patients hearing about it? Mostly social media. Just look at Twitter, right now on my feed it’s all anyone is talking about. Trying to get information out of our respective governing bodies and our sources of clinical guidelines on this is like trying to get blood from a stone. But jump on to their Twitter/Facebook accounts and it’s all there in black and white. So social media in medicine can be a huge potential source of information and resources for us and our patients.

What about other health issues?

Social media is used to talk about a whole raft of health and lifestyle topics. It’s not just new epidemic virus threats or mass contagions. There’s anything from corns and callouses to catastrophic disease outbreaks and everything in between. It’s all out there for everyone to see, and more importantly, engage with.

Today alone I’ve seen discussions on GP mental health care plans, Coronavirus, seeing podiatrists, diabetes, the list goes on. That’s one of the beauties of social media, there’s not just one topic and that’s it, and everybody can engage.

Ease of access

As we said, anybody and everybody can engage with social media. All you need is an internet connection and a computer or phone. Nowadays most people have access to the internet and social media, from young children to our very elderly and infirm. There’s something quite nice about seeing your 97-year-old patient in a nursing home on twitter by the way. This allows information to be spread easily and rapidly.

This is probably a good thing ultimately, but it’s not without its downsides. It’s not just healthcare professionals out there on social media. In fact, we probably have some of the lowest ‘reach’ out there. There are likely many reasons but one is that we generally aren’t posting the kind of stuff that really gets people’s attention. You’ve all seen the types of posts and pictures I’m talking about.

The downsides of social media

There are many people out there that have a large following who have no medical background at all. That’s fine, and I’m definitely not one for restricting access to only those with a medical degree, but it all comes at a cost. There are those out there that are posting things which are factually incorrect on social media. The issue is that nowadays people tend to believe what they read, especially if the internet told them. This can lead to a dangerous problem where people are believing incorrect information.

This may be fairly innocuous, and slight inaccuracies are not likely to do much harm. Sometimes though it’s not just limited to inaccuracies. There are some out there who peddle totally false information, I can only assume knowingly. The motivations are often unclear, although conclusions can be drawn easily which may or may not be correct. The likelihood is that they are seeking some financial gain, either immediately or in the future.

One example of this is some posts I saw today on Twitter. We mentioned Coronavirus that’s been all over social media lately, but today it seemed people were trying to cash in on Cannabis. There were lots of people tweeting about cannabis curing coronavirus. Not only is this totally untrue and has no basis in evidence at all, but it’s also potentially harmful advice for people.

This is one thing that as doctors we seem to be constantly battling. The misinformation out there on the internet can be terrible at times and can lead to real harm. The anti-vaccination movement is one great example of this. There is absolutely no documented evidence of vaccines causing any harm whatsoever, and yet there is an abundance of evidence spanning decades that vaccination is not only safe but incredibly, overwhelmingly effective. Yet just look at the anti-vaccination movement and social media. It got to be so much of a problem that there were calls on the big providers like Facebook to take an official stance and ban those accounts.

What can healthcare professionals do to combat this?

The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

Original quote source in question

Now we don’t mean just men of course and there are thousands of female healthcare professionals rocking it on social media, but we’ve all heard the quote or something similar to it. The original author is still in question but it’s easy to understand the gist of what they are saying.

So this means that to combat the age of misinformation and propaganda peddled by those groups we need to be actively engaging with social media and unfortunately with them directly sometimes. It was pleasing to see a veritable plethora of my colleagues calling out those on Twitter peddling cannabis for coronavirus earlier.

So this means healthcare professionals getting on to social media and getting involved.

How can social media and medicine be combined? How can we get involved?

There are 2 main ways.

  1. Get on social media and start putting information out there
  2. Make your own website or blog to get information out there

Get on social media

Let’s tackle the first one. If you are a social butterfly you are probably well versed in social media, have accounts for all the big ones, and know how to use it effectively for personal purposes. But do you know how to use it professionally?

There are plenty of ways you can get involved in social media. The first and easiest is to put information out there to your own friends and family. This approach likely has the least potential for blowback and is the least likely to cause any arguments or anxiety you may have when people object to what you say or write. Your friends and family may then share it out if you allow, but the likelihood is the impact is likely to be low and slow. Unlike a great Brisket, this is not likely to give you optimum results.

Another method is to post directly to community groups. This will likely have an impact locally and may be the most direct way to get the information you want to your patients. Examples of this could be local Facebook pages for your business when it’s flu season and the immunisations are in stock. Depending on what you are writing it may be very easy with little chance of any complaints or objections, or it could get you some people who take offence to what you write and try to cause you problems. It might just be that you end up having to engage with people who are arguing with what you write.

That can be disconcerting. It’s never easy to have to argue with anybody, especially our patients, but it’s something you have to be prepared for if engaging on social media.

The last is to directly post to people in response to something they write, like on Twitter for example. This probably has the biggest potential for arguments and confrontation so be prepared.

Make a website

The last method is to make a website or blog. This is one of the easiest ways to combine social media and medicine, and can be a real source of positive information and resources for both you and your patients. It is, however, one of the lowest reach methods of engaging in social media.

If you have millions of social media followers who lap up your every word and you can tell them about your new site then you are probably set, but if like me, you don’t have the population of a small country following what you say, you will have a struggle to get your website out there.

It can be very disheartening to put lots of time and effort, including financial into making a website and it not taking off and getting thousands of views per day immediately. Eventually, if you keep plugging away it will improve though and can become a great resource for you and your patients.

Know your professional obligations

Professional obligations do not end when we leave work. We are responsible for what we say and do in both our professional and personal lives, and often the 2 are intertwined heavily. Unfortunately, you can definitely be reprimanded for what you say and do online and on social media. AHPRA (our regulatory body for health care professionals in Australia) has quite specific social media policies in place and if you do the wrong thing you can land yourself in hot water very easily.

For example, identifying patients in any way is a definite no-no, even if by chance they could potentially identify themselves from what you write. AHPRA is also very specific, as are the likes of the GMC in the UK, that anything you do online as a healthcare professional should be done under your name, not anonymously. This means you are open to all manner of repercussions professionally and personally if it goes wrong.

Why should we get involved?

You might be wondering, why on earth would I want to do all this? Especially if it has the potential to blow up in your face? Well, make sure to read this post, but here are the main reasons I’m doing it:

  1. It’s helpful and it’s a hobby. Despite me often giving advice to my patients to get a hobby to help pass the time, counter stress and depression, and generally give them something meaningful to do, I don’t tend to follow this advice myself. I actually don’t have that many hobbies and so finding something to fill my time is really useful combining social media and medicine.
  2. It can be really cathartic. When I wrote this post it was about our personal experience of suffering a miscarriage. It was really useful to me to write it and helped me express feelings I’d had for a while. It also helped my wife who oversaw what I was writing. This one helped me express the thoughts and feelings I had at that time which I could never quite put into words. It helped me convey to my friends and family what I really went through which was very helpful to me.
  3. It can be a great resource to give information to your patients. Take this post for example by Dr Nick Tellis at PartridgeGP.
  4. It can bring you income. Since I started engaging in social media I’ve seen my income increase. I don’t have some secret recipe how it happened, I just started engaging and so far it’s working well. Social media in medicine can definitely be a source of revenue for health care professionals.

Dr Suresh Khirwadkar is a GP and Skin Cancer Doctor in Kenmore, Brisbane

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