Social media is both an amazing and a devastating thing. It can be used to spread useful information and raise awareness, and at the same time it can be used to spread misleading and fake data. It doesn’t help that a lot of people believe absolutely everything they read on social media without looking it up to check if it’s really true. Social media isn’t just restricted to Facebook and Twitter, there are other sites such as Tumblr, Reddit, and applications like Figure 1.
So how does social media fit into the world of medicine? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Another question that has been raised recently is whether or not it’s okay to be friends with your patients on social media. It remains a grey area with no clear rules but some medical organizations in the US have expressed their recommendations in the matter. There are also websites that allow medical students to have medical discussions with senior doctors which is another great use for the internet from an educational point of view.
First let’s talk about the concept behind an application like Figure 1 which is basically a social platform for medical professionals. It’s a mobile application that allows people in healthcare to post images, videos, or just regular medical data. It has a lot of educational value as it allows physicians to share medical knowledge or a rare occurrence in medicine with other physicians all over the world. It’s also great for medical students who are looking to test themselves and learn from sources other than just textbooks. It gives you a feel of what it’s like to be a doctor in the real world and the sort of things doctors face. Non-medical personnel won’t really get much use out of it because they won’t really be able to understand what’s going on. There’s also no need to worry about confidentiality because faces, names, and other methods of identification are blocked out to protect people’s privacy.
One great way to use social media is to provide awareness to the public. Organizations such as the CDC can post useful information that can help people. Some major hospitals or clinics as well have their own pages where they can share information such as that on healthy eating habits or getting the best possible sleep. This is information that helps the public and provides them with a reliable source of basic medical information. It certainly beats getting info from unreliable websites on the internet. Some physicians have their own Facebook pages where they do the same thing. It’s better than using your own personal profile because it protects you from sharing personal data. It’s also a lot better because it saves you from wondering whether or not it’s okay to accept friend requests from patients. Patients simply like the page and get the medical information you post. There’s nothing personal about it and you don’t feel obliged to connect with them or like the things they post for instance. It’s not expected from someone who runs a page to actually pay attention to people who participate in the page through commenting and liking. It can also give people the opportunity to send medical questions to the page’s inbox. Since it’s a professional page there’s no obligation to answer non-medical questions.
Whether it’s through a page or using your personal profile spreading awareness is a great thing for any medical professional. Even medical students are welcome to share basic medical information or even share articles from respected and well known pages or websites such as the CDC or the WHO on their personal pages. That way they can spread that information to family and friends who wouldn’t normally get it because they don’t follow these pages or look up these kinds of things. Useful information that can be shared includes those about common diseases such as the complications of diabetes for instance. It will get diabetics to take better care of their health and at the same time they’ll be able to catch any complication at its start and visit their doctor. Another example would be ways to control blood cholesterol levels in order to reduce the risk of heart disease or useful exercises for patients with arthritis in order to decrease joint pain and improve mobility. Social media can also be tremendously useful during crises or epidemics. This is usually when false info is at its highest and medical professionals should utilize social media in order to make sure the public know right from wrong.
As for being Facebook friends with patients, a lot of doctors feel uncomfortable with it. By befriending your patients on social media you’re basically mixing your professional and personal lives which is never a good idea. A doctor specifically is someone whose professional image is very important. Patients may simply not visit you because you seem like an unprofessional person. This is because who they trust with their health is such a massive issue that they’re not just going to trust anyone with it. Imagine your patients being able to see every picture on your profile since before you were even a med student and reading every comment on post on your profile whether you posted it yourself or someone wrote it for you. That’s why the BMA and the American College of Physicians among others have advised against being social media buddies with patients.
Your patients don’t need to know what’s going on in your personal life. They don’t need to see your vacation pictures and know about your relationships. There needs to be a certain distance between a doctor and his or her patients in order to maintain a healthy doctor patient relationship. Otherwise the lines get blurry and it can be hard being professional. It’s also notable that the things patients see on your profile can give them a different impression about you. If you’re someone who can get a little wild on vacation and they see these pictures they might think less of you as a doctor. They may have loved you and had complete faith in you during the time they visited you, but these pictures made them change their minds even though they shouldn’t. We’re all human and we’re all allowed to have fun, but the line between professional and personal has been erased so things start to get mixed up. Even for doctors, you might find something about your patients through social media that they hadn’t told you personally. Do you use it or not? What if it’s valuable medical information? That’s a dilemma you don’t need.
All doctors and medical professionals in general should be careful to not post comments about their patients either general or specific. This can lead to a lot of trouble and may even be considered a breach of confidentiality. It’s really unnecessary and could land you in trouble or a lawsuit even if you don’t have any patients on your profile. You need to keep professional separate from personal even if no one is watching you.
Of course this has nothing to do with being friendly and nice to patients in real life. If you run into a patient at the supermarket it’s great to welcome them and say hi. This makes them feel closer to you and help them realize that you’re a part of their community which can help them trust you more.
Social media is great, but within limits. If you want your patients to communicate with you then set up a completely professional page or use a specified app for that kind of thing. This will allow you to control the conversation and keep it completely professional without revealing any personal information. As for having patients as friends on social media, it’s best to avoid this unless of course they were your friends before they came to you as a doctor.