For the last several years, Paul Sufka, MD, has tweeted almost every day. His posts usually address medical topics that are helpful, or perhaps even unusual, and that other doctors may be interested in.
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Explore This IssueJune 2013
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As a rheumatologist at HealthPartners, a consumer-governed healthcare organization in St. Paul, Minn., Dr. Sufka has attracted hundreds of followers throughout the U.S. and other parts of the world, such as Colombia and Ireland. His main objective for tweeting is to network with physicians worldwide about new medical approaches, research, or treatments.
“I got started on Twitter because I’m a person who is tech savvy and jumps into anything that’s new and technical,” he says, noting that he can be found on Twitter at @psufka. “I make comments about medicine and rheumatology, look for new [treatment] information, or talk about technology or fitness.”
He says Twitter offers a valuable tool for users. They can identify what topics people have been tweeting about in real time. He often searches the field of rheumatology, for example, so he can catch up on the latest news or research, then discusses the information online with other doctors.
However, his audience has not been limited to just physicians. Patients have also contacted him about rheumatology-related issues. He responds to generic questions, often delivering information that is applicable to many patients. But when questions in-volve a patient’s own condition, his response must be tailored.
If a patient asks a more specific question, Dr. Sufka says, “It would be best answered by a physician who can review their chart, see them, and do an a exam,” noting that physicians must observe patient privacy regulations established by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). “I realize that may be frustrating. They’re probably reaching out on Twitter because the information they got from a local person they talked to hasn’t been satisfying.”
Mold Your Online Identity
But what is gratifying is the opportunity to control his online brand or medical reputation. He says doctors would be surprised if they knew how many patients searched for information about them on social media sites. On an average day, he says, between 10 and 20 people Google his name.
Their search often leads them to his blog (paulsufka.com). Although he started blogging approximately two years ago, covering medical-related topics, Dr. Sufka quickly realized that blogging helps him control the type of information that others may read about him online, such as material posted by physician rating services.
“When I search my own name, my blog or Twitter account—things that I control—end up being the first things that show up on Google,” Dr. Sufka explains. “By being proactive, I get a little more control over what a person reads about me. I would rather have my own Twitter page or blog show up first as opposed to not at all.”
The reason people are online is because they want to interact. Most rheumatologists are going to be happy to interact with you.
Patience, Problems, and Persistence
Blogging and tweeting can consume a great deal of any physician’s time. Still, Dr. Sufka believes Twitter is one of the best ways to ease into social media, mainly because each posting can’t exceed 140 characters.
He suggests following medical groups or associations like the American College of Rheumatology (@ACRheum), which maintains a list of rheumatologists on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the process if you overdo it. As an experienced online practitioner, Dr. Sufka can follow between 170 and 200 people before feeling overwhelmed. For novices, however, he says up to 100 may be more realistic.
Just like any other activity, it’s important to establish goals for social media interaction. What do you want to accomplish on Twitter, Facebook, or with a blog? Dr. Sufka’s goals for his blog are simple: to post medical information he finds interesting or unique. For example, one of his recent blogs focused on his approach to attending medical conferences. Before conferences, he tweets other rheumatologists to schedule informal meetings with them during the conference. Since most sessions are recorded and can be watched online, he recommended that doctors use their time wisely by networking with other physicians.
But as a blogger, he admits he’s a bit lackadaisical. His blog is updated with new information every several months. Dr. Sufka flat out refuses to post information on his blog that appears on other sites.
While a few hundred people read his blog every month—ranging from physicians and patients to friends—he says he has never encountered any Twitter problems.
However, he says some physicians have engaged in conflicts online. In some cases, they supported different treatment approaches or methodologies, which stirred up emotions—even hostility—between tweeting physicians.
“Online conflicts are pretty rare, especially in the field of rheumatology, since physicians in our field tend to be pretty nice and happy,” he says, adding that results from several studies support that rheumatology is one of the “happier” medical fields. “[Problems] are easily solved by [making] simple statements such as ‘Let’s agree to disagree,’ or tend to be forgotten if ignored for a few days.”
Despite differences of opinion, beginning tweeters or bloggers don’t need to be afraid to interact with others.
“The reason people are online is because they want to interact,” he says, adding that to attract followers on Twitter, physicians need to be fairly active by posting information several times a week. “Feel free to approach anyone,” he advises. “For the most part, rheumatology is a fairly small group. Most rheumatologists are going to be happy to interact with you.”
Carol Patton is a freelance journalist based in Las Vegas.