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Docs absent from social media, for good reason

July 21st, 2011

by Nancy Cawley Jean

I am completely supportive of social media in the world of healthcare. Whether it is for marketing and brand awareness for hospitals, providing information about a practice, posting important health information or warnings like recalls, or chat rooms and support groups for people with chronic conditions, social media is a great way to reach people. It allows providers and patients to connect with others when and where they need to, while obtaining the information and support they want and need.

There are plenty of doctors who have jumped into social media, and social health is alive and well on Twitter with folks like @DrVes, @hrana, and @kevinmd. Through tweets and blog posts, they're providing information to huge numbers of followers about the ever-changing world of healthcare, as well as empowering other doctors and patients alike.


However, I'm seeing more and more stories about the absence of doctors in the world of social media, calling upon them to be more active in providing healthcare advice. According to an Information Week story, patients are increasingly sharing information about their illnesses through social media and their need for emotional support is an opportunity for clinicians. The story is based on a new report from Russell Herder, which used social monitoring to look at how people use Twitter, Facebook, online message boards, and blogs to obtain and share healthcare information.

The researchers were able to do this because some Facebook users don't apply privacy settings. And herein lies a key to why doctors are uncomfortable in the social media world, and why caution is absolutely needed. First and foremost, health information is protected by federal regulations. If an individual chooses to disclose his or her health information online, that is their decision. Doctors, however, need to be extremely careful about violating patient privacy. Basically, it's a "they can talk about it but we can't" philosophy. Then there is the liability involved with providing anything that might be construed as dispensing medical advice through social media tools.

Another concern is the time involved with social media use. Doctors are already stretched thin enough taking care of patients, managing a practice, overseeing staff and filing necessary paperwork. On top of that, we're facing a shortage of physicians, especially in the area of primary care. Should we really be asking doctors to take away time from caring for patients in order to offer advice and "emotional support" to people online? Do we want to be sitting in a doctor's office waiting for an appointment because the doctor is busy on Facebook?

I know that social media is a wonderful and practical tool for many things in the healthcare industry. I agree that providing important, timely, pertinent health information to people through websites, virtual support groups, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts can be invaluable in terms of getting information out there, building brand awareness and allowing people to connect with others who are experiencing the same thing. At the same time, I don't believe that it's an outlet for a doctor to provide emotional support or offer medical advice. The ramifications are just too great.

What do you think?

Nancy (Cawley) Jean is a senior media relations officer for Lifespan. She is a communications and media relations specialist, focused on national media relations for research at Rhode Island Hospital and its Hasbro Children's Hospital, and managing social media for the hospitals within the Lifespan health system.


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