Despite national debate on whether doctors should use social media, some physicians are forging ahead, using platforms such as Twitter to interact with colleagues, expand their knowledge and even connect with patients.
Dr. Nick Bennett, the infectious disease and immunology medical director for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, said he benefits professionally from Twitter. He created his account, @peds_id_doc, a few years ago to see what Twitter was about, and he’s remained a loyal user.
Bennett started by following health-related accounts and live tweeting from conferences. He also joined Twitter chats – conversations that use hash tags to link tweets. For example, #hcsm is a weekly, moderated conversation about health and social media, and #mdchat is a chat for doctors.
Bennett, who now has more than 3,300 followers, quickly realized that people were interested in what he had to say, and he began #Micro140, a chat that allows for case-based learning. Bennett describes a medical scenario and doctors from around the world would ask questions. As the conversation evolved, Bennett said he provided teaching points and health professionals offered comments.
But some doctors, including Dr. Cory Edgar, an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at UConn Health Center in Farmington, are reluctant to use social media. He and other doctors want to maintain privacy and avoid interacting with patients outside of the office.
“I am a ‘new age’ doctor that emails patients and is developing a website for patient information, but I don’t feel medicine has a place on Twitter,” Edgar said.
A few professional organizations have established guidelines to help the many doctors who do want to use the technology.
“Online technologies present both opportunities and challenges to professionalism,” the paper reads. “They offer innovative ways for physicians to interact with patients and positively affect the health of communities, but the tenets of professionalism and of the patient–physician relationship should govern these interactions.”
Earlier this year, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published its own opinion on social media, leaving decisions regarding social media up to individual doctors.
While there are certainly doctors who have opted not to embrace social media, others are already studying how Twitter and Facebook can be used to help with patient care.
A recent research study by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School indicates that social media can be useful in ways beyond networking and the sharing of information. The study “demonstrated a novel method for studying sleep issues that allows for fast, cost-effective, and customizable data to be gathered.”
Dr. Vivian Argento, executive director of the geriatrics and palliative care service line for Bridgeport Hospital, is a new convert to Twitter.
“I wanted to try it out and get a feel for how to use it,” she said. “Many conference organizations promoted tweeting during the conferences, and I wanted to see what benefit that would have.”
Argento, who tweets as @ArgentoMD, says she uses Twitter as a networking tool and shares professional thoughts or stories. She says she never shares specific patient information and never talks to patients on social media because of privacy concerns. Patients, however, will expect more interaction with their doctors on social media in the future, she said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of all online adults use Facebook, the most popular platform, while 23 percent use Twitter.
“I believe social media is a powerful tool for education and patient engagement and that it is important to learn how to use the features of social media to patients’ benefit,” Argento said. “There are studies that have linked health behavior to our social circles. I believe if we can create networks of people who face similar health conditions, we can use social media and the power of the group to foster healthier behaviors. It’s a new type of support group.”
Bennett has also used Twitter for research. He learned about the Enterovirus D68 last year by mail, but turned to Twitter when he needed more information. He contacted follower Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease physician in Missouri, to discuss the health threat, which started in the western part of the United States and moved east. After exchanging Twitter messages, Bennett said he was confident that Connecticut residents would be fine.
He’s also turned to Twitter when stumped by resistant bacteria, soliciting opinions from other doctors.
“When you put the request out, you can reach tens of thousands of people very quickly,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he likes Twitter because it allows for quick responses and easy access to a wide range of medical experts. Bennett said he has helped others, including medical students, colleagues and his own patients, through Twitter. Bennett said he occasionally responds to questions from his patients via Twitter’s direct messaging.
“Physicians have to get on board with social media,” Bennett said, adding that patient privacy must always be maintained in the process.