Whether you’re using social media to post pictures of your vacation in the Cayman Islands or to reach out to colleagues regarding a challenging patient, the line between personal and professional, as well as what’s appropriate, can sometimes become blurred.
Research has shown that many physicians using social media report minimal formal training in professional conduct online, as well as a lack of awareness regarding which guidelines to follow.
A number of recent studies have highlighted the level of unprofessional social media content posted by physicians.
These included profanity, references to (or appearing to be) intoxicated, and sexually suggestive photographs. They also included possible HIPAA violations, which have the potential to damage careers.
It’s easy to get caught out when talking about patients online, as an article in The Hospitalisthighlighted. Even supposedly innocuous identifying features can “turn a seemingly harmless post on social media into a patient privacy violation.”
“Any physician who uses social media has to be mindful and conscious about protecting private patient information even on personal accounts,” said Toni Brayer, M.D., chief executive officer of Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco, CA.
But your online presence and interactions can also be powerful tools, said ophthalmology resident Steven M. Christiansen, M.D., an avid blogger and Twitter user based at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
How can you turn social media to your advantage? And what guidelines can you follow to make the most of professional social media?
Using social media for your reputation
Matt Dull, M.D. – who is due to start his critical care fellowship at the Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI – became interested in using social media professionally when he heard a keynote speaker at a national medical conference discuss the fact that patients were looking for providers on social media.
“He said that being engaged with your patients on social media will be of increasing importance in the years to come,” Dr. Dull explained.
As a resident, he said, he doesn’t need to engage patients outside the hospital. But, he added, “In the future, I will be looking for ways to reach patients and potential patients through social media.”
Indeed, an increasing number of patients turn to doctor rating sites such as Rate MD, Yelp, and Vitals when choosing a physician.
“We know that [those sites] are increasingly important avenues for patients seeking more information about healthcare providers,” said Dr. Brayer. “We’ve learned that ‘stars’ matter and we celebrate good reviews internally and respond to any patient complaints directly for our physicians.”
As Dr. Christiansen noted, “We have worked too hard in our training to let a few poor ratings keep patients from coming to see us. Social media can help us create and establish an online presence we control.”
Connect with colleagues and learn
One of the greatest benefits of social media for physicians is the ability to connect with colleagues to improve diagnostic and other medical skills.
“I only recently started using social media for professional purposes,” said Dr. Dull. He started by joining the International Hernia Collaborative, a large Facebook group for surgeons to discuss complex hernia operations.
“From there, I found all of the other professional ways to leverage social media,” he said. “I now regularly find interesting journal articles, medical blog posts, and discussions of new therapies through Twitter.”
Indeed, a survey of 153 Dutch clinicians found that 76 percent of them used Twitter to extend their network of colleagues, while 71 percent used it to update their colleagues about their work.
Pathologists, for instance, use social media to share images with colleagues, students, patients, and even the general public, while professional medical organizations such as the American College for Chest Physicians use it to promote their specialty and provide education, which extends to patients.
“I use social media to promote health and wellness and as a way of letting people know what is happening in my organization and in the community,” said Dr. Brayer. “As a physician I have a strong voice and see myself as an expert with useful information.”
Twitter is also becoming a hugely effective tool for communicating content live from medical meetings.