Doctors, Patients Not Using Same Social Spaces

Doctors are heavy users of social media--but shy away from patients and even online patient communities.
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Physicians are using social media at a higher rate than the rest of the population, according to a new survey cited in American Medical News. But in their professional use of social media, they're still shying away from contact with their own patients or even with online patient communities.

An August survey by the online physician learning collaborative QuantiaMD showed that 87% of physicians use social media. This finding is in line with the results of a Frost & Sullivan poll conducted between April and May, which indicated that 84% of doctors were using social media for personal purposes. A study published in August by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 65% of the general adult population used social media.

Susan Giurleo, Ph.D., a psychologist and consultant who blogs about social media at BizSavvy Therapist, has some other other theories. Besides doctors' rapid adoption of mobile devices, which makes it easy to dip into Facebook or Twitter on their lunch breaks, they like to communicate with other physicians across the country and around the world. "It's a really good way to keep up with information and research," she said.

The QuantiaMD survey shows that 67% of physicians are using social media for professional purposes, and the sites they visit are revealing: The top destinations are physician online communities (28%) and LinkedIn (17%). Facebook comes in at 15%, but that's a small percentage compared to the 61% of physicians who use Facebook in their personal lives. Just 3% of doctors Tweet in their daily work, and only 9% use it for personal reasons.

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The most striking finding of the study is that a third of physicians had received an invitation to "friend" a patient on Facebook. Not surprisingly, 75% of those doctors declined the invitations. It's well known that physicians are reluctant to communicate with patients via social media for privacy reasons; but it's amazing how many patients have asked their doctors to do so.

Besides the fear of breaching professional confidentiality, Giurleo offered some other reasons why doctors might not want to be friended by their patients. In an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare, she explains: "I think people want to keep a separation between their professional and personal lives--especially the younger generation of doctors, who are used to having very active personal communities online."

Also, she pointed out that patients might cross the line between friendly discussions and medical issues. "If a patient talks about recreational drug use online, what does a doctor do with that? It puts them in a bind. They might think, 'that person never discussed it with us in the office.' It's just tricky," she said.

Many patients, strangely enough, don't understand that their Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter discussions with physicians would be open to everyone to see and could get back to their boss or their neighbor, Giurleo noted.

In contrast to doctors' preference for physician forums, only 3% visit the many online patient communities that focus on particular health issues. According to Giurleo, the two main factors are lack of time and lack of awareness.

"Physicians know these communities exist in theory, but they don't know there's a specific diabetes type 2 YouTube channel. And they're bombarded by so much information professionally that it just falls off the radar."

Yet physicians could learn much from these patient communities about how patients are trying to cope with various forms of illness, Giurleo pointed out. "They do a lot of experimentation if they have a chronic illness. They'll talk to each other about the diets they're trying or whatever."

If physicians are interested in referring patients to online communities, she added, they should check out the sites themselves before they do. "It's important to vet a site before they refer to it, because if the information on the site isn't medically accurate, they could be liable for giving patients bad information."

Not every application is ready for the cloud, but two case studies featured in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Healthcare offer some insights into what does work. Also in this issue: Keeping patient data secure isn't all that hard. But proposed new regulations could make it a lot harder. Download it now. (Free with registration.)