If you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em—but do it carefully
Love it or hate it, social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. etc. is here to stay. Some physicians have embraced it; others haven’t; many aren’t sure. If you’re in that latter group, you’re not alone. This article, which includes advice from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and Ottawa-area family physician Merilee Fullerton, may help you understand how this fast and ever-changing media may help your practice.
In February 2011, the CMA conducted a survey to examine social media use among its physicians, and reported its findings in this report. This is the summary: “Many physicians have embraced social media as a source of information and a way to stay current and connected, but there are concerns about personal and professional risks in terms of confidentiality, accountability and privacy protection. The CMA asked members of the e-panel their opinions, to help with guidelines the association is developing for physicians on the professional use of social media. NOTE: The percentages cited in these summaries do not always total 100 because not all findings are reported, e.g. those in categories “not applicable,” “neutral,” “not reported” – or responses are given in more than one category.
As noted in the report, more than 51 percent of the respondents have Facebook accounts and use them weekly. Use of other social media sites, i.e. Twitter and LinkedIn, is much smaller. There are many concerns about professional and legal risks that physicians might encounter when using Facebook as reported by more than 80% of respondents. However, more than 51% feel that social media has its place, especially as a tool that can be used for public education about healthcare issues. Here are two quotes from the report that illustrate these points:
“Given the weight of privacy issues, using social media in a physician-patient relationship is a dangerous trap, best to be avoided.”
“Don’t be afraid, folks; let’s find out what it can do for us!”
Two opposing views for sure.
The CMA has developed guidelines about physician use of social media and the Internet. The CMA also takes care to define what it means by social media use, as stated on its advocacy page:
“To many people, social media is just the names of well-known online products – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. But in the broader sense, social media can be defined as a set of web-based and mobile technologies that allow people to monitor, create, share or manipulate text, audio, photos or video, with others.
This information can be shared (e.g. posting text to one’s own blog) or multi-directionally (e.g. contributing to a discussion on an online forum). Social media places particular emphasis on interactive, user-driven communication.”
The CMA had a clear purpose in developing the guidelines, “to provide guidance as to how Canadian medical students, residents, fellows, and practising physicians can approach and use social media by acknowledging the potential benefits as well as the challenges and risks.” On this website the key issues, and rules of engagement are clearly outlined. But each doctor has to determine his or her own comfort level with social media.
Dr. Merilee Fullerton says that while she is on Twitter (@doctorfullerton,) she does not use it to discuss medical issues with patients. “Generally, I use it to disseminate information that I think would be helpful to the public as well as to discuss health system issues and contribute to knowledge surrounding new technologies, scientific advancements including genomics, end-of-life care, pharmaceuticals, and population health concerns such as obesity, diabetes etc.,” Fullerton says.
The public education role of social media is a very important one to Fullerton. In addition to her duties as a family physician, she is a resident member of the City of Ottawa’s Board of Health. She also sees it [social media] as a tool to bring people together. “From my perspective as an MD, Twitter is also a very helpful social media tool for developing networks that include many different groups and bringing the ‘Big Picture’ perspective to health care. It is also a communication tool that can further flatten the hierarchies that exist in medicine and health care bringing more knowledge to the public at virtually no cost.”
While support and advocacy groups on Twitter or Facebook can be beneficial, Fullerton says that using social media for members of a group to chat with each other has its limitations. “There can be private Tweet networks and private Facebook groups, but those can still be hacked or compromised, so no one should ever share really personal information that they don’t want made public.”
Fullerton adds that everyone has to understand the risk, and every physician on social media has to understand that there needs to be a balance between the need for the public, especially patients, to be involved with advocates and the need for privacy. “Some patients may want to forego the privacy to get the information and support the advocacy work, but that has to be the patient’s call, not the doctor’s.”
So when it comes to social media, you may want to join in, but follow the guidelines and understand the risks and the benefits before you do.
Conseillère principale, Communication et Rayonnement public
Senior Advisor, Communications and Public Outreach
Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, MD
Family Physician in Kanata, Ontario
City of Ottawa Board of Health, Resident Member
Watch for a future article on how doctors and patients can effectively use the Internet for good health information—and how to weed out the bad.
Christine Peets is a freelance writer and a writing instructor. Her services include writing (or ghostwriting) articles for blogs, websites, magazines, and newspapers, as well as corporate reports. For details about writing services and her courses visit www.CaptionsCommunications.ca
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