May 23, 2017

Part 2: Healthcare Communications and Social Media (#HCSM) - Why It's Important

Jaime Friedman MD FAAP
San Diego CA
@drjaimefriedman  Facebook and Twitter

How to safely be online as a physician
It’s important for healthcare providers to be online, but as seen in the Cleveland Clinic case, (see previous post) it can be a scary place.  One error can make a big difference for a physician or organization.  But it can be a lot of fun too, so don’t be discouraged!  

When physicians decide to have an online presence, the first thing they need to do is  to make sure who they want to be, how they want to portray themselves, and who their intended audience will be.  They need to understand the policies of their employer, place disclaimers in their bios, and be very careful about posting any protected health information.   Probably the  major reasons many physicians opt out;  are the fear of saying too much, damaging their reputation, or causing someone harm.  That and the time factor.  

Many physicians stick to posting only medical information and don’t get very involved with conversations.  That’s helpful from the standpoint of providing healthcare-related information, but is not very social.  Over time, you might find that you connect enough with colleagues on Twitter that you actually become friends!  This is when many start to let their guard down and show their personalities.  

I think it’s perfectly  OK to have fun, be yourself, and tweet about non-healthcare topics that interest you.  As I’ve previously written, this is what makes us human and humans are social beings. However, if your primary goal on Twitter is to be an expert voice as a physician, and you are using MD, Dr, DO, or other identifying information in your name/handle, I believe it is important to be truthful about who you are and to stick to your message as much as possible.  

Your intended audience may be other doctors, students or colleagues, but if you have a public account, anyone can see your feed.  The public will expect you to know what you are talking about and will expect you to communicate accurately.  Furthermore, your institution or employer will expect that you  represent them well.  Anonymous accounts not only make it hard for someone to own their words (a phrase I borrowed), but also makes it hard for the public to trust that you are who you say you are.  

I understand the reasons some, especially medical students, want to stay anonymous.  Future employers may not look kindly on you due to your social media activities.  Although if you have an account you wouldn’t want your employer to see, it may be a good idea to rethink what you post.  Also, physicians can have a personal account that is separate from their professional account.  This is common on Facebook, with personal accounts frequently kept private. 

Sometimes physicians and medical students, both anonymous and non-anonymous, share patient information, act in a way that is unbecoming of a physician, or say things that they later regret.  Again, it is up to each individual to decide how you want to be perceived online, and it is perfectly acceptable to delete tweets if you feel your original post misrepresents you.  It’s important to be accountable, learn from your experiences, and represent your profession (or future profession) well.  Think before you tweet.

One thing that turns doctors off from being online is being trolled by people who will attack them and their message.  They will be called a “shill”, their whole profession will be demonized, and they will be accused of horrible things.  Some physicians don’t mind arguing online, and that is certainly a personal choice.  My technique to respond to trolls comes from Kevin Pho of KevinMD. Give a calm, evidence based response and if they keep attacking, end it.  Don’t feed the trolls. Twitter has “mute” and “block” options if needed.

Long term goals
Ultimately, I think physicians need to be in the digital space in order to stand out among the many voices that parents/patients hear.  For those of us building our practice and hoping to carry our message further, being online can help that happen.  Being online can also provide a wonderful network to connect with and learn from.  There may be a steep learning curve as you get started, but it can be very rewarding.  For anyone interested in getting started, I definitely encourage you to do so. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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