Nowadays, a growing number of healthcare professionals are embracing social media as a means to share helpful health information and provide patient care. Still, if you are hesitant about using social media to promote yourself and your practice, you are not alone. While social media is a great way to interact with patients, share their success stories, and educate the public on health awareness, some doctors are skeptical to blur the lines between their personal professional lives. Moreover, they worry about appearing boring online, exposure to negative comments, as well as security and privacy issues. “It is very difficult to talk about medical care without personalizing the content, and you can’t personalize content without violating HIPAA. In addition, the practice of medicine requires a thorough history of the patient’s current condition and a thorough physical exam before we can render a diagnosis and treatment plan. A person with a severe headache for several months can range from a simple headache to migraines to an allergic reaction to a life threatening brain tumor. How would a doctor – or a computer program – differentiate between these diagnoses without physically talking and touching the patient? Without the opportunity to directly talk to a patient and examine them, our ability to be accurate is significantly mitigated” said Thomas Lee, of the Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Center in Westerville, Ohio.
Under all circumstances, HIPAA regulations and guidelines must be kept in mind and confidentiality of patient information must be maintained. However, the fact of the matter is that the internet is always public, too much information is available online, and no one knows who is who most of the time. Doctors who discuss specific medical concerns with patients through social networking platforms, or even emails and text messages for that matter, have no way of knowing when they could break privacy laws. “Those concerns are always going to be there. How private is it when we share, when we talk to people? … Once I’ve written it or once I’ve emailed it, it’s gone, and I have no control” said David Fleming, past president of the American College of Physicians.
Professional guidelines for doctor-patient interactions online have to be written in order to break through the legal and ethical obligations of online patient communication. In a recent study that involved the participation of 187 doctors, around 25% stated that they do not use social media websites in any way and around 30% stated that they had communicated with patients via email. Over 60% reported to being uncomfortable with the idea of communicating with patients who had viewed their personal information online, before consultation. In addition, more than 65% were hesitant about using social media and communicating online due to public access and legal issues. Researchers conducting the study had concluded that doctors have different views and practices regarding embracing social media and being present online. Additional training could help doctors to protect their personal information online, in turn permitting them to guide patients to appropriate and legitimate websites. Still, more focused guidelines need to be proposed on the best approach to legally and ethically difficult doctor-patient situations and communication online.
Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney, evaluated the effectiveness of Internet-delivered Cognitive Behavior Therapy (iCBT) using e-couch – a free of charge online program that provides different modules to aid with symptoms such as fretfulness and depression. The results of the study revealed that the program is effective in easing mild depression and physical related health issues. “Essentially, online therapy will help serve the nearly 3 out of 4 people who have mental health problems but do not currently get any kind of help. It is particularly important for people who cannot get to an office for conventional help because they are housebound, in remote areas, physically disabled, and so on. Online therapy lowers the bar for people who need help” said Lawrence Shapiro, president of Talk to An Expert, Inc., a HIPAA-compliant e-therapy company. He went on to state that “there are a few studies that have been done suggesting that online therapy is just as effective as in-office therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, almost 25 percent of people with mental health problems don’t get the help they need with the current mental health delivery system. Online therapy extends the reach and reduces the cost of therapeutic services.”
Even with the emergence of digital health and online therapies as legitimate forms of healthcare, most doctors have concerns when it comes to using social media and rightfully so. Such concerns generally fall into four categories: patients receiving misinformation, patients passing on misinformation, doctors receiving misinformation, and doctors passing on misinformation. Even senior doctors are struggling with the idea of doing things in a different way and at a different speed than that which they have grown accustomed to. A few guidelines for you to consider include the following: do not write about specific cases or reveal any personal patient information; do not diagnose, but rather engage and educate; do not offer medical advice or treatment option that would require a doctor visit first; and share relevant and legitimate sources such as websites, articles, tools, and tips. Used responsibly, such platforms can drive professional growth in a positive direction.
The bottom line is that today’s world of medicine is becoming more technologically advanced and patients are using the internet to become more engaged, empowered, and informed. Rather than isolating yourself from social media, consider the possibility of doctor marketing as a way to combine creative elements with professional practice standards. Moreover, you can build relationships with your patients and colleagues online, that is, at an appropriate level. “I encourage patients to go online and inform themselves about their medical conditions. Patients deserve to be well-informed, and the transparency of the Internet allows them access to information that used to be gated by a provider. The problem, as previously mentioned, is the quality of the information on the Web. There’s too much information available. Physicians need to act as curators of that information, and help patients sort out what’s help and what’s not” said Kevin Pho, physician of internal medicine and founder of KevinMD.com.
In 2016, over 60% of internet users were social media users. By 2018, it is estimated that there will be more than 2.67 billion social media users. It is in your best interest to stay on top of such advancements because like it or not, healthcare and social media are starting to go hand in hand. Individuals are always online and therefore, it is easier to receive answers online. You have the opportunity to present yourself as an authority within your field and raise patient awareness. Of course, you should maintain appropriate boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship in accordance with legal and ethical guidelines. When it comes to patient care, you should also proceed with caution on doctor social media sites and the internet in general – just to be on the safe side.
“Doctors know they must keep current in the fast-changing world of medicine, particularly these days. Doctors need to appreciate their colleagues’ struggles and concerns as the medical world evolves around us. Doctors need to know what patients are thinking, too. But the beauty of social media for doctors is that it can help them with each of these needs without anybody knowing if a doctor so chooses. For doctors, I believe social media is a critical tool, but should not be considered an end-all. Just learning how to listen to the social media conversation not only provides an opportunity to participate in the medium IF (and only if) the doctor desires, but permits an instantaneous opportunity to raise one’s voice to affect change when it’s really needed.Yep, it’s the autonomy, not engagement, that matters to most of us” wrote Westby G. Fisher, board certified internist, cardiologist, and cardiac electrophysiologist.