Patients find a lot of good -- and bad -- healthcare information online. That's why doctors need to be as digitally literate as their patients.
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Medical education will probably never move at the pace of social media, but perhaps it ought to move fast enough that new doctors (as well as those in continuing medical education) understand how social media is changing the practice of medicine.
Digital literacy for doctors is important partly because digital media is so important to patients -- often the first place they turn for medical information, before they visit a doctor -- and physicians need to be prepared to encounter patients who may be either incredibly well informed or very misinformed by the information they've gathered online. There is another intersection of social media and medical education that I want to return to in another column, which is the opportunity for physicians to connect online and educate themselves and each other through social media (see #FOAMed). Here, I'm addressing the need to educate physicians on what they need to know about consumer use of the social Web.
That's what Bertalan Mesko aims to do with The Social MEDia Course, a series of online tutorials, as well as his book Social Media in Clinical Practice, published in August. As he argues in the book, "The only way to fight against pseudoscience and medical quackery is to take control of publishing medical information on the Web." Doctors need to be on social media to develop and protect their own reputations, as well as to understand the resources available and how they can be used or misused, he says. His book catalogs many types of social media and gives specific advice, such as a recommendation to turn down patient "friend" requests on Facebook unless that social profile is used solely for professional rather than personal interaction.
Based in Hungary, Mesko is an M.D. and also holds a Ph.D. in genomics. Rather than practicing medicine, he has wound up doing business as a medical futurist, speaking widely on medical technologies and consulting with their developers, as well as teaching. Having always been a tech enthusiast, he says he realized about the time he was completing his Ph.D. that "my geek self might be a bit stronger than my doctor self."
Mesko's online course is based on one he originally taught on campus, he says, and he wrote the book after talking with an older doctor who felt he would learn the material better from a book than from an online course. Yet most medical schools have yet to allocate time in the curriculum for the subject. "Medical students should have access to many more resources than they do right now in medical school, so that when they try to enter the digital era, they will know where to go, where to start," Mesko says. Most medical students don't have a relevant course offered where they study, and many have thanked him for making a version of his course available online.
Meanwhile, many practicing doctors think of social media as a marketing channel, if they think of it at all.
While still in medical school, Mesko became active as an editor on Wikipedia, eventually working his way up to being one of the site administrators for medical information. While doctors might not think of Wikipedia as a reliable source of medical information, that's all the more reason to work on improving the quality of what is published there, Mesko says.
Social media for medicine course.
"The question is whether people are using it," Mesko says, and indeed they are as consumers increasingly seek medical information on the Web first. "If you do a search regarding medical information, whether a symptom, a disease, or a treatment, Wikipedia is usually one of the first three results. If patients are going there, it's the responsibility of medical professionals to make sure they find correct information."
Often, patients will walk into the office having obtained information from a source far less reliable than Wikipedia, Mesko says. In a sense, this is no different from what might have happened in the past if a patient found a book about his condition and came to the doctor with questions or theories based on that book. But with the proliferation of digital media, it's happening more often. "If a patient asks my opinion about a Facebook page, I ought to be able to make an assessment of the quality of that social media channel," he says, and not just with a knee-jerk answer. "Doctors should be able to give a proper evidence-based response. Every medical professional has to be able to assess the quality of these resources themselves."