by: Mark Ryan, MD

[Ed. This is the second of a two part series by guest writer Dr. Mark Ryan*, who is interested in how social media can be used to promote patient empowerment, health and wellness. You can find part one here.]

Social media, internet tools that allow the many varieties of one-to-one and one-to-many conversations, has forever changed the landscape of the world wide web.

However, the astonishing rise of Facebook and Twitter will likely also change medicine. In this second post, I will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the various social media tools available today and offer ways to reach varying audiences and pass along different types of information:

Blogs

The most “traditional” of social media tools in that a blog’s content often resembles an essay…something many of us have written in our lives. Blogs allow longer content, and can include pictures, videos, multiple links and reader comments. The major limits to blogs are:
1) the need to be updated regularly, something that can take longer with blogs than other social media tools
2) the social nature of the medium is often restricted to comments under the post.
Thus, blogs may not be the most “social” of media but they often serve as a “home base” to allow writers to develop thoughts in greater depth.

Facebook

Facebook pages allow individuals and organizations to share updates, links, and photos with a group of online friends, though there is less room to write than blogs would offer. Facebook also adds two other forms of interaction that are especially useful for organizations or collaborative groups: fan pages which make it possible to provide news and updates to a large number of people at one time, and to have active and public discussion about those updates and groups, which can be made public or private, can be used to enhance dialogue and discussion, and can be used to set up online chats among group members. When using Facebook for personal reasons, I recommend tight security settings and declining to accept friend requests from patients. The privacy and interaction settings for Pages and Groups can be set according to need.

Twitter

Twitter allows for very short messages (under 140 characters), with the default setting of these messages being public. An account’s Twitter updates (tweets) are visible to anyone who follows that account, and those followers can share (retweet) those updates to their network of followers. This allows information to be shared widely, and quickly. Tweets can be directed to a general audience, targeted at one person, or sent more privately. Tweets can also be tagged with a hashtag—the # sign, followed by a short phrase. For example #HCSM is the hashtag for healthcare communications and social media, #HCR is the hashtag for health care reform. Hashtags can be used to search Twitter to see what is being discussed regarding a certain topic, and can be used to organize “Twitter chats” in which specific topics are the focus of conversation at a pre-determined time. Tools such as TweetChat allow for live discussions, without needing any specialized equipment. For many physicians, I would recommend that they have a personal and a professional/practice Twitter account and use them for different purposes.

BlogTalkRadio and PodBean

These allow users to live-stream and/or record and upload audio podcasts that can be accessed at any time.

YouTube and UStream

These allow users to record videos and upload them directly from their computer. Recordings can be as long or short as desired (though often shorter is better) and can include discussions and/or demonstrations. This material is available at any time.

I do recommend some cautions when using social media…although I do not think we need to be scared. I think it is wise to be careful. The primary caution is to be aware of privacy—both patients’ and your own. Nothing online is truly private, and even direct messages might not be as secure as we would like.

It is also necessary to avoid practicing medicine through social media channels, even if patients approach us for help. Social media use is not a reimbursable service. Eventually, patient-centered medical home models of care and accountable care organizations might provide a financial return on social media use if they can be shown to improve patient outcomes. Until then, however, if you use it you are doing so because of the added value you feel it provides.

Finally, there are no established “best practices” or agreed-upon guidelines for social media use and so anyone using these tools is doing so at something of a cutting edge…but is also helping define the tools’ uses in the future.

I think that social media communication tools will continue to impact how doctors and patients communicate with each other. We are early in the process of determining the best use. I believe health care providers need to be engaged in the process because social media will become increasingly important as patients are already looking to these channels to improve their health. At some point, asking “what is the ROI” will stop meaning what is the “Return on Investment”, and become what is the “Risk of Ignoring”?

 

* Dr. Mark Ryan works at the Department of Family Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and is also a member of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media Advisory Board. He has spent his career working in rural and urban medically under-served communities in Virginia and on medical student teaching. He is an active participant in the #hcsm and #MDchat Twitter chats where you can follow him as @RichmondDoc, and is a contributor to the Social Media Healthcare blog. A slide presentation containing many of these ideas can be found here