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Doctors turn to social media as public health tool

A look over the shoulder of Army Maj. (Dr.) Jennifer Hepps as she looks at the Twitter app on her phone. Several people are in the background talking around a table.
By Christopher Austin

A young doctor’s impact on the world can be immeasurable; it’s their job to provide guidance to the sick and injured and their families. These days, it’s possible to do that in 140 characters or less.

“For students who are learning how to be physicians in our world of global connectivity, it’s critically important to use the platforms that our patients are using,” said Army Maj. (Dr.) Jennifer Hepps, assistant pediatrics clerkship director at Uniformed Services University (USU). “If you look at the research, our patients are increasingly accessing social media for their medical information. Whether we agree with it or not, that’s the reality.”

Educators in the Department of Pediatrics at USU have created the Media Communications in Health Care course to address the changing media landscape. Students are taught by several instructors to engage patients and their peers through different forms of media. Hepps is responsible for teaching social media.

“To ignore the impact of social media on our patients’ medical decision-making is a bit like sticking our heads in the sand. It’s important that we bring the information we are accustomed to delivering in the office to the broader discussions happening online,” said Hepps.

There’s nothing to stop someone from posting false, or even dangerous information online. Patients and family members may try to look up information, or ask their social networks to help guide them during health issues and be easily misled. For example, Hepps says that many parents reach out to their social media networks with concerns about vaccines, and they can be unwittingly exposed to myths and misconceptions from pseudo-science practitioners and the larger “anti-vax” community.

“Social media, for us as providers, is a huge asset in terms of countering the false information that’s propagating on the web,” said Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Subodh Arora, a graduate of USU who took the course. “When people look for credible sources, if we’re there and able to reach large audiences, we can hopefully counter it.”

The goal of the course is to prepare graduating students to join the many physicians who are active on social media, dispensing verified information in digestible bites for followers on multiple social media platforms. In Pediatrics, these physicians call themselves “tweetiatricians.”

Busy residents who don’t have time to read the latest journals can get morsels of information from the doctors they’re following. Aspiring physicians can take advantage of this access to experts by reaching out to them with questions, either by commenting on their Facebook posts or replying to their tweets. Arora appreciates being able to get clarification from the doctors he’s following when they post something that he wants to know and could apply to his work.

The path to becoming a “tweetiatrician” isn’t straightforward. Users have to reach out to one another and form their own networks, and use those connections and their own content to establish themselves as subject matter experts.

“In the social media spectrum, the main thing you have to contend with is that it’s an opt-in procedure. Someone has to like your page. You can’t push it onto people,” Arora said. “As military providers, we don’t broadcast information all that much.”

Being in the military and a medical provider on social media does have its limitations: there are regulations from several guiding bodies – including USU – as to what can and can’t be posted on social media by representatives of the military.

“We talk about what you should and should not post, and our role not just as a medical providers, but as military officers,” Hepps said regarding the class. “Remember: we don’t always know who’s following us online. It could be patients and their families, fellow military providers, civilian providers, really anyone in the community. We need to present ourselves online in a manner fitting our dual profession as physicians and military officers.”

There have been plenty of stories of doctors “behaving badly” on social media, Hepps said. If someone posts something that might defame themselves – like a photo of themselves on vacation in an inebriated state – it could ruin not only their personal reputation, but also the public’s trust in the medical profession. There are also concerns about what kind of information doctors share about their patients. Medical guidelines say that providers should refrain from posting identifiable patient information online and should ensure that they maintain patient privacy and confidentiality.

If medical providers are able to create their networks, and maintain their credibility in social media posts, they could have a powerful tool in communicating with patients and the public. This way, more accurate information can be readily available.

“I think [social media] could play a bigger role in the future in terms of helping patients come together with their specific communities,” Arora said. “Sometimes, parents with children who have complex medical issues feel isolated, and I think in the military community, especially where there are so many resources for them, social media can become agents for them to foster a sense of community.”