Social media and the health care professional: what’s not to like?



Social media

Pictured: Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Specialist Marjorie Dixon, BSc, MDCM’97, who can be found on Twitter (@DrMarjorieDixon) and Facebook (Dr. Marjorie Dixon).

By Sara Baron-Goodman and Anne Chudobiak

Seventeen years.

That is how long it takes on average for health research findings to be adopted into widespread clinical practice, common wisdom has it.

For Dr. Susan Rvachew, a speech pathologist specializing in developmental disorders and a professor at McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, social media allows her a wider—and faster—reach than traditional modes of publication.

Whereas in a three-year period she was able to publish eight papers in academic journals, she published 43 posts on her blog.

“It’s very reinforcing,” she says, “because you put the blog post up and within minutes you start to see the hits coming.”

Although her blog primarily attracts many of the same types of readers as her articles—students, academics and professionals—there is one important difference: parents are much more likely to tune in, seeking information about their children’s disorders.

“I feel like providing this access to information is part of my responsibility as a researcher,” says Rvachew, who, under the handle @ProfRvach, tweets on a variety of themes, including advocacy for children with disabilities.

Across campus at the Ingram School of Nursing, Justine Behan, a student in the global health stream of the direct-entry MSc program, also uses Twitter for advocacy.

Social media can be a way for nurses to speak up for themselves and their patients, and to share information with the nursing community around the world, she says.

It can also be an important tool in the promotion of global health, she adds, citing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when social media was used to share information and save lives. Health care workers and the affected population alike used Twitter to uncover outbreak patterns, which helped predict areas in need of treatment and reduce transmission rates.

There can, however, be a downside to social media, Behan acknowledges. In a crisis, it can be used for fearmongering and the spread of false information. “It is not always possible to verify sources in an emergency situation.”

Eugene Bereza, BA, MDCM’88, Director, Centre for Applied Ethics at the McGill University Health Centre, and Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Biomedical Ethics, McGill Faculty of Medicine, agrees that the use of social media and digital communications by health care professionals can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, “social media vastly improves access to information for patients,” he says. Having the facility to answer patients’ questions and concerns via messaging makes it easier than ever to transmit short answers in a timely fashion.

On the other, “patients may build up resentment if response by health care professionals is perceived as too slow,” says Bereza. Furthermore, the impersonality of social media interactions makes it easy for certain things to get lost in communication.

“A health care professional may unintentionally transmit information that is decontextualized and therefore not really meaningful to the patient; and could even be harmful if patients misinterpret the significance,” he says. This could be potentially dangerous, he explains, for example in the case of a depressed teenager who sends a message at 2 a.m. to a social worker with a cry for help that is not received and responded to right away.

Some health care professionals prefer to keep a low profile on social media or avoid it altogether. Strategies include pseudonyms, separate personal and professional accounts, and passive rather than active use. On Facebook, I look at other people’s pictures, says one MDCM alumnus, but I don’t add my own.

Chauncey Fitzsimmons, B PHYS THER’69, BSc(PT)’79, turned to Facebook after retirement to reconnect with classmates as she prepares to organize their 50th anniversary reunion in 2019. “I wouldn’t say I have been wildly successful at hooking up with my classmates this way. But I have kept in touch with three so far.” She has found emailing and word-of-mouth to be more effective.

Fellow School of Physical & Occupational Therapy alumna, Monica Slanik, BSc, BSc(OT)’96, has been doing her part to build the School’s online communities. “It’s a way for students and alumni to stay current with our news and events,” says Slanik, whose responsibilities as Academic Associate include Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Slanik gives workshops on social media, where she encourages faculty and staff to pay attention to how social media is being used by others in their fields. You don’t have to use it, but you should know how it is being used, is her advice.

This message is echoed by Pat Rich, medical writer and editor and longtime observer of the health care social media scene in Canada. During his 14 years at the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), he helped develop social media guidelines for Canadian doctors.

“You ignore it at your peril,” Rich says of social media. “You need to be aware of it even if you’re not going to use it personally.”

There are, however, many good reasons, both altruistic and “more pragmatic,” to use it, as he goes on to explain.

Some Canadian peer leaders argue that health care professionals have an obligation to be active on social media, “because that’s where the patients are,” and there is a need to balance out the information that is available.

From a career-enhancing perspective, social media can facilitate networking and information gathering.

“If you’re a med student or a nurse, it is a great way to connect with people whose names you may have only seen in textbooks.”

Secure networking sites for health care professionals are another emerging tool. “In Canada, there is something called The Rounds. Globally, one of the biggest is called Sermo. It allows doctors to be anonymous.”

Add to that the fact that social media can be an efficient way for busy health care professionals to stay up to date both on research and other news. Rich knows of at least one prominent Canadian doctor with a strong online presence who “gets all his peer-reviewed information through Twitter rather than waiting for the journals to come through on his desk.”

It is important, of course, to take precautions. “Social media is the last place you want to be talking about an individual patient,” Rich says.

In spite of the potential benefits, a 2013 CMA survey found that less than 10% of Canadian physicians were using Twitter for either professional or professional and personal purposes. (McGill’s Dean of Medicine, @VPDeanEidelman, on Twitter since 2015, is part of this vanguard.) The obstacles to using tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn? “Time and a lack of perceived value,” says Rich, who finds, though, that those who do use social media effectively fit it into their workflow in such a way as to actually save them time.

A word of warning from Rich: Although examples abound of nurses using social media successfully, it can be slightly thornier for them to navigate, perhaps because they are subject to different regulatory frameworks. “There is a Saskatchewan nurse who was disciplined,” he says, referring to the recent case of a nurse accused of professional misconduct after commenting on social media about her grandfather’s end-of-life care.

Who makes best use of the form? “Emergency medicine residents are probably the leaders. Urologists, for some reason, are incredibly social media savvy. Same with nephrologists.”

Nationally, there are also certain institutions that have caught Rich’s attention, notably Michael Garron Hospital (formerly Toronto East General Hospital). “They’ve put social media policies into place and even taught frontline admin how to use it.”

Because there is a “how to use it.”

A Facebook profile for personal, Twitter for information gathering and networking, YouTube for promoting public health, these are some of the lessons that health sciences students should be learning, according to Rich. “It’s just another facet of professionalism.”

Pros and cons aside, Rich’s number-one social media tip for all health care professionals, especially new graduates seeing employment, is to Google yourself every few months to monitor your digital footprint. It may surprise you, for example, to discover that there is someone else with your name working in your field—and unwittingly influencing your reputation.

Then, if you’d like to go further, he recommends lurking, especially on Twitter. “You don’t have to jump into the conversation,” he says. “Just dip your toe in.”

Beyond that, he recommends using the same professional demeanour you would in any face-to-face interactions.

“Social media is a valid academic and research tool,” he concludes.

The challenge is putting it to good effect.

For more on this topic: How I use social media, one alumna’s account of how she has incorporated social media into her workflow. 

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