December 1, 2020
Social media as a physician’s tool
Those in the medical field have a long history of going beyond their institution and making an impact in their community at large. In recent years, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and TikTok, have become forums where physicians can share medical information as well as snippets of their personal and professional lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that it is critical for medical professionals to become involved on these platforms. In a Pew Research Center study, nearly half of Americans said that they have seen news and information about COVID-19 that seemed completely made up. Much of the misinformation surrounding the disease is perpetuated by those lacking medical expertise. Accordingly, physicians and medical practitioners have turned to social media to answer questions, spread awareness, and combat misinformation on the disease. The role of the doctor-influencer is quite new to medicine, and many physicians are still finding their place in social media.
Social media can be a powerful addition to the physician’s toolkit. The popularity of social media platforms continues to grow, with over 330 million monthly active users for Twitter and 1 billion monthly active users for Instagram. The public has also evolved. With easy access to medical information, many individuals have become information seekers and are actively turning to multiple sources to gain knowledge about their health. Using social media, physicians have the opportunity to connect with populations that may not be reached with traditional medicine, such as those who live in rural communities, lack consistent access to care, or have mistrust for the healthcare system. Physicians can become role models on these platforms and leverage their medical expertise to help and inform a large audience. The role of the doctor-influencer can start early, by educating young people on disease prevention and screening long before they become sick. Social media platforms can be used to decrease stigma surrounding certain diagnoses by arming individuals with scientific facts. In addition, many individuals may not know the difference between inpatient and outpatient providers or the clinical duties of providers practicing different specialties. By sharing information about their clinical experiences and life as a doctor, physicians can inform patients of what to expect and who will dictate their care the next time they are hospitalized or ill.
Interacting with the public through social media is an uncharted territory for many healthcare professionals, as most of us are accustomed to keeping our personal and professional lives separate. However, social media almost requires that these aspects be intertwined to some degree. Because users are presented with a long list of influencers to follow, physicians must figure out how to share accurate scientific information while staying relatable and interesting. Coming off as too serious on platforms such as Instagram or TikTok can seem out of touch with the culture of the application, and physicians have addressed this in creative ways. Most of us have probably seen a viral video of healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment and dancing to a pop song on the internet. To be successful on online platforms, physicians must determine how they can best be personable without appearing unprofessional or eroding the public’s trust. There are other ethical questions that must be answered. Policies on patient privacy and sponsored content in social media posts remain incompletely defined. For example, is it ethical for physicians to promote over the counter or non-medical related products? In addition, a system must be established to ensure the accurate representation of medical credentials on social media platforms in order to mitigate false claims made by unqualified individuals.
While social media is certainly not for everyone, it can be a powerful tool to educate and connect with large communities. Rather than discouraging it out of fear of appearing unprofessional, medical training should teach physicians to use social media effectively, and healthcare institutions should support those who are interested in establishing an online presence. Whether physicians choose to participate or not, the truth is that the public will increasingly turn to online platforms for medical information. The medical community must learn to evolve with social media and use it to its advantage.
About the Author
Julie Yi completed her 3rd year at Eastern Virginia Medical School and is currently pursuing a year-long clinical research fellowship in dermatology. She served as president of the Women's Health Club at her school and is on the editorial boards of several national medical student journals. She also enjoys mentoring high school students in her local community. She is excited to join SMA’s Physicians-in-Training group as the Personal Development and Wellness chair.