Everyone seems to use social media these days, and medical professionals are no exception. Whether you work primarily in research or clinical practice, social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, offer ways to connect with colleagues, share ideas or interact with patients.
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But which online conversations are appropriate? What do you do if someone you don’t even know sharply disagrees with your post or goes so far as to harass you with ugly comments, an action also known as trolling?
“Interactions on social media have their own set of rules. The usual provider–patient relationship doesn’t exist in this space, and physicians could feel intimidated by negative interactions,” says R. Swamy Venuturupalli, MD, FACP, a Los Angeles-based rheumatologist and former clinical chief of rheumatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Busy physicians have little time to sift through comments on social media feeds, he says. “Moreover, what is said on social media can last forever. Thus, for most physicians social media use seems to be a difficult experience.”
Many people use social media today to communicate, so it’s important for physicians to engage and help shape conversations in healthcare, he says. “In doing so, it’s important to have a strategy, as well as clear rules of engagement.”
One possible pitfall of social media use is the mean-spirited debate. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study on online harassment, about 40% of adult internet users have been harassed, including 27% who’ve been called offensive names and 22% “who’ve had someone try to purposefully embarrass them.” In addition, any communication on social media must follow current HIPAA laws and standards for information technology.
How should rheumatologists, including clinicians and researchers, use social media wisely and carefully?
To learn more about the possibilities of technology and social media for rheumatology education and discussion, there’s a two-part series at the 2016 ACR/ARHP Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., focusing on social media:
- Nov. 14: What Rheumatologists Can Learn from Patients’ Online Conversation, 8:30–10 a.m. in Room 150A; and
- Nov. 15: Engaging with Patients Online: The Dos and Don’ts, and What’s to Gain, 8:30–10 a.m. in Room 150A.
These technology-focused sessions, planned by the Annual Meeting TechMed track subcommittee chaired by Dr. Venuturupalli, will expose rheumatologists, fellows and trainees, and rheumatology health professionals to various social media platforms and online search engines. Topics include how to use Twitter feeds to do research and various social media platforms to connect with patients who have rare diseases, says Dr. Venuturupalli.
If you want to step out more on social media to network with fellow researchers or interact with new patients, which channel should you use?
“It depends on your goals. Each channel really has its own unique audience and culture,” says Mark W. Schaefer, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and a marketing consultant who has worked with physicians. Most patients will use Facebook, but LinkedIn is a better site for professional networking, he says. “Twitter has a smaller audience, but it’s a loyal and passionate group, and perhaps more likely to connect.”
Physicians who are new to social media use shouldn’t let their fears about negative backlash put them off, says Mr. Schaefer. In his experience, the rate of angry comments on social media by patients concerning a physician or practice is very low.
“And these were generally comments about not being able to reach somebody by phone,” he says. “In general, people are kind and supportive of the medical community. Of course, whoever is running social media for the practice needs to be smart, experienced, trained and alert to the specific issues of the patients and the community. But if you run a good practice, the benefits of connecting online far outweigh any risks.”
Mr. Schaefer offers a few tips for rheumatologists who want to try social media for professional networking or to market their practice:
- Pick one social media platform, such as Facebook, and focus on it;
- Content fuels your social media profile, so commit to creating content regularly or pay someone to do it for you; and
- Use content pieces in different ways, such as turning a video transcript into a blog post or slide for a presentation.
Although social media has a definite, strong marketing angle, rheumatology patients’ use of social media could prove to be an invaluable research database, says Dr. Venuturupalli.
“More and more people are going online. Researching social media feeds is a fertile ground for novel insights,” he says, and cites the networking site PatientsLikeMe, which also posts on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, as a useful platform for dialogue with patients who may take part in studies or trials.
Professional networking via social media is also a great way to connect with like-minded professionals, he says.
“For example, it used to be hard to meet people who were doing similar research. Now, with social media platforms, it’s infinitely easier to keep in touch with your peers.”
Figure out why you want to engage with others online, be cautious and find the right platform for your work, says Dr. Venuturupalli.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among other sources, posts guidelines and tips for doctors getting on social media to talk to patients. Keep HIPAA and other privacy restrictions in mind whenever you chat online.
“Social media already dictates how we interact with each other,” says Dr. Venuturupalli. “We are now trying to focus on how best to understand social media and use it to further knowledge.”
For more on social media and to meet the faces behind the handles, attend the #ACR16 Tweet-Up at the 2016 ACR/ARHP Annual Meeting on Nov. 13 from 4:30–6:30 p.m. in West Overlook on the second floor of the convention center.
Also, share your opinions with us while getting peer-reviewed journal articles, updates on CME opportunities, practice resources and healthcare policy news in real time. Don’t forget to engage with the ACR’s social media channels year round.
Susan Bernstein is a freelance medical journalist based in Atlanta.