Social Media in Medicine: The Doctor’s Duty


Digital health care is about using technology to shift, massage, lubricate and tweak the rusty ol’ health care system. As the world populations grow older, worry and anxiety over how to support aging has turned to innovation and action; technology is quickly becoming the answer to outpatient care, to invaluable insights into healthier living, prevention, adherence and patient engagement. How exciting!

At this point, it seems silly to differentiate a doctor as a “digital doctor” since use of technology to supplement and advance one’s practice is fairly ubiquitous in the medical world. Though the use of EMRs and computers and other online tools are common, being social online, either amongst peers or patient communities is less so. ZocDoc, a digital referring home to tens of thousands of physicians, recently released some interesting facts and figures on the doctor’s use of social media.

The survey illustrates 360 physician’s use of social media:


  • 87% of physicians ages 26-55 use social media
  • 65% of physicians ages 56-75 use social media


  • 21% are onTwitter
  • 28% are on LinkedIn
  • 34% are on Google+
  • 53% are on Facebook
  • 30% have no social media account

Being social and knowing how to engage and tell stories to disseminate awesome information to your patient demographic doesn’t come naturally to us all. Yet being social is weighted more and more for so many reasons. Connecting with your colleagues is critical. Mentioned before, engaging through Twitter, Facebook, or another social platform with other physicians, scientists, or thought leaders will keep you ahead of the curve, inspired, and connected. As the data above show, young doctors especially get this.

But also, there is the patient side of the coin. Ben Heuble and Nick Saalfeld wrote an excellent article on MedCrunch talking about the wisdom of the crowd. Patient communities are quickly becoming an essential part of a patient’s journey to gaining better health and deeper understanding about his or her condition. As Ben and Nick write, “The platforms that seem to succeed create hubs offering patients the opportunity to ask questions in a supportive environment.”

Though an old fashioned Google search is still pretty common, condition-specific communities enable a sense of belonging, support, more accurate information, and personalized stories. Anecdotal data mixed with peer-reviewed, physician-provided information create dense data banks that can be fed back into a personalized care approach to health. Applications like fertility app Ovuline syndicate data with common patient community platforms or trackers like PatientsLikeMe or FitBit, bring personalized treatment plans to thousands by synthesizing, analyzing and artfully illustrating a particular patient’s information back to them. The better the conglomerate data, the better the treatment. Physician’s expertise is invaluable here for cutting all that unwieldy (and uninformed) medical advice online.

Redefining a Doctor’s Call

Dr. Howard Luks, New York-based, Chief of Sports Medicine and Anthroscopy, and an Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at New York Medical College wrote on ZocDoc recently that, “while social media has become ubiquitous in countless professions, many digital doctors are only ‘social’ when it comes to physician-to-physician social media. The real promise, in my opinion, is using digital technology to improve physician-to-patient communications.” Being part of the growing patient community trend is just one area where such communication can happen.

In addition to being an all-round superstar entrepreneur-ortho surgeon-professor-Tweeter extraordinaire (he has over 13,000 followers and co-founded Symplur, a great resource for anyone in health care and social media ), Dr. Luks practices what he preaches. His blog provides information to his patients and his colleagues, equally. He talks about social media and ACL surgery, web design and best practices in health care. He sees the definition of a physician being redefined beyond the surgery room and hospital swinging doors, to a highly interactive, highly impactful platform: social media. Dr. Luks goes to the patient, rather than waits for the patient to find him.

Dr. Nina Shapiro is Professor and Clinical Director of Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat at UCLA. About three years ago, Dr. Shapiro began her social media adventures to establish a broader and more accessible platform for Take A Deep Breath: Clear the air for the health of your child, a book for parents about choking and asthma. Since, Dr. Shapiro regularly shares information relevant to her practice through her blog, Twitter, and Facebook (of which she holds two accounts – one for her book, the other for her practice).

Engaging with social media has become routine in Dr. Shapiro’s world. Though her clinical work takes priority, she sees information sharing through social media as part of her job. “The medical community must continue to provide realistic, peer-reviewed information to tease out a lot of the nonsense that exists out there,” Dr. Shapiro says.

There are of course sensitivity issues. Many of her colleagues deal with throat and neck cancer in children; doctor’s sharing stories about their encounters should be practical, but take care to not neglect the critical lessons of sympathy and sensitivity inherent in bedside manner.

Emotional stories that are informative, real, but empathetic to the audience can be challenging, and therefore, might dissuade some clinicians from wanting to share online. Yet these same stories, where the doctor reveals a part of her underbelly can prove extremely important. Dr. Shapiro’s most read and widely disseminated articles are those in which she shares personal insights, opinions – her voice. Her LA Times article on vaccinations, for example, created an awesome stir – awesome because it informed, it challenged certain views, and it got people thinking and talking about important issues.

Digital health is driving patients to seek information, physician referrals, and treatment options online. The quantified self movement further enables this trend by redefining our attitude and expectation about interacting with our health in digital details – in data, graphs, trends, and prompts.  Additionally, hierarchical hospital to patient health care structures are being inverted so that the patient holds increasing power over his health, and indeed, is told more and more that he is being held accountable. It becomes the doctor’s duty, therefore, to have a presence online. With a built online platform comes more exposure, more recognition. As Dr. Shapiro says, “If you build it, and it’s recognized, more people will listen, and you’ll be able to express what you need to say on a larger scale.” Whether the social platform is established through a referral on a diabetes website, or an active blog or Twitter feed, being online – and being social online – is crucial to listening, to engaging, to informing, and to treating patients today.

For other doctors making strides through social media:

(6 Doctors to follow from ZocDoc)

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Susan E. Williams (@estherswilliams) explores experiments at the intersection of health care and technology, particularly around how mobile apps, games and sensory apparatus change the way we pay attention, understand, and make decisions about our bodies, emotions, and behavior. Susan received her BA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and her MA in East Asian Culture, with an emphasis on Japan, from New York University. She is on the board of Health 2.0 Seattle, and works (and believes) in social media communications for health care and science.