Pulmonary Perspectives®

Social media for physicians: Strong medicine or snake oil?


For most of us, social media is a daunting new reality that we are pressured to be part of but that we struggle to fit into our increasingly demanding schedules. My first social media foray as a physician was a Facebook fan page as a hobby rather than a professional presence. Years later, I have learned the incredible benefit that being on social media in other platforms brought to my profession.

What’s social media going to bring to my medical practice?
The days where physicians retreat to the safety of our offices to deliver our care, or to issue carefully structured opinions, or interactions with patients have made way for more direct interaction. Social media has, indeed, allowed us to share more personal glimpses of our daily struggle to save lives, behind-the-scenes snapshot of ethical struggles in decision making, our difficulties qualifying patients for therapies due to insurance complications, or real-time addressing medical news and combating misinformation. Moreover, when patients self-refer, or are referred to my practice, they look me up online before coming to my office. Online profiles are the new “first impression” of the bedside manner of a physician.

Other personal examples of social media benefits include being informed of new publications, since many journals now have an online presence; being able to interact in real-time with authors; learning from physicians in other countries how they handled issues, such as shortage of critical medications; or earning CME, such as the Twitter chats hosted by CHEST (eg, new biologic agents in difficult to treat asthma, or patient selection in triple therapy for COPD).

Dr. Hassan Bencheqroun

Why should I pay attention to social media presence?
The pace by which social media changed the landscape took the medical community by surprise. Patients, third-party websites, and online review agencies (official or not) adopted it well before physicians became comfortable with it. As such, when I decided to google myself online, I was shocked at the level of misinformation about me (as a pulmonologist, I didn’t know I had performed sigmoidoscopies, yet that’s what my patients learned before they met me). That was an important lesson: If I don’t control the narrative, someone else will. Consequently, I dedicated a few hours to establish an online presence in order to introduce myself accurately and to be accessible to my patients and colleagues online.

Who decides what’s ethical and what’s not?
As the lines blurred, our community struggled to define what was appropriate and what was not. Finally, we welcomed with relief the issuance of a Code of Ethics, regarding social media use by physicians, from several societies, including the American Medical Association (https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/professionalism-use-social-media). The principles guiding physicians use of social media include respect for human dignity and rights, honesty and upholding the standards of professionalism, and the duty to safeguard patient confidences and privacy.

Which platform should I use? There are so many.
While any content can be shared on any platform, social media sites have organically differentiated into being more amenable to one content vs the other. Some accounts tend to be more for professional use (ie, Twitter and LinkedIn), and other accounts for personal use (ie, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest). CHEST has selected Twitter to host its CME chats regarding preselected topics, post information about an upcoming lecture during the CHEST meeting, etc. New social media sites are now “physician only,” such as Sermo, Doximity, QuantiMD, and Doc2Doc. Many of these sites require doctors to submit their credentials to a site gatekeeper, recreating the intimacy of a “physicians’ lounge” in an online environment (J Med Internet Res. 2014:Feb 11;16[2]:e13). Lastly, Figure1 is a media sharing app between physicians allowing discussions of de-identified images or cases, recreating the “curbside” consult concept online.

I heard about hashtags. What are they?
Hashtags are simply clickable topic titles (#COPD #Sepsis # Education, etc.) that can be added to a post, in order to widen its reach. For instance, if I am interested in sepsis, I can click on the hashtag #Sepsis, and it would bring up all the posts on any Twitter account that added that hashtag. It’s a filter that takes me to that topic of interest. I can then click on the button “Like” on the message or the account itself where the post was found. The “Like” is similar to a bookmark for that account on my own Twitter. In the future, all the posts from that account would be available to me.

What are influencers or thought leaders?
Anyone who “liked” my account is now “following” me. The number of followers has become a measure of the popularity of anyone on social media. If it reaches a high level, then the person with the account is dubbed an “influencer.” Social media “influencers” are individuals whose opinion is followed by hundreds of thousands. Influencers may even be rewarded for harnessing their reach to make money off advertising. One can easily see how it is powerful for a physician to become an influencer or a “thought leader,” not to make money but to expand their reach on social media to spread the correct information about diets, drugs, e-cigarettes, and vaccinations, to name a few.

Can social media get me in trouble?
In 2012, a survey of the state medical boards published by JAMA (2012;307[11]:1141) revealed that approximately 30% of state medical boards reported complaints of “online violations of patient confidentiality.” More than 10% stated they had encountered a case of an “online depiction of intoxication.”

Another study a year earlier revealed that 13% of physicians reported they have discussed individual, though anonymized, cases with other physicians in public online forums (http://www.quantiamd.com/qqcp/DoctorsPatientSocialMedia.pdf).

Even if posted anonymously, or on a “personal” rather than professional social media site, various investigative methods may potentially be used to directly link information to a specific person or incident. The most current case law dictates that such information is “discoverable.” In fact, Facebook’s policy for the use of data informs users that, “we may access, preserve, and share your information in response to a legal request” both within and outside of U.S. jurisdiction”.

What kind of trouble could I be exposed to?
Poor quality of information, damage to our professional image, breaches of patient’s privacy, violation of patient-physician boundary, license revoking by state boards, and erroneous medical advice given in the absence of examining a patient, are all potential pitfalls for physicians in the careless use of social media.

Next Article: