I saw this cartoon on Twitter recently, and it reminded me of the resentment many doctors have towards social media. Not every physician or healthcare provider feels that social media is the worst thing to happen to medicine in years, but many do.

Safe is risky social media cartoon

I’ve sat through committee meetings for national medical organizations and listened to doctors argue that we should not participate in social media. These doctors contend that it’s a ”waste of time” or “spam.” Some of them will contest that the quality of health information online is poor. Instead they feel we should focus our efforts on research published in journals, talks at medical conferences, and discussions with our patients in clinic.

Clearly I have a different perspective, and I’d like to offer my thoughts on these views.

Research and academic medical journals

First, I completely agree that doctors and all healthcare professionals should continue to perform research to improve our care of patients. Medical researchers will always have a key role in healthcare. However, very few people actually read medical journals, and only people with a medical background can understand the terminology and language used in these articles. Doctors explaining these studies in everyday language can only help the public seeking this information.

Medical conferences

Medical conferences are also great ways for healthcare professionals to share and learn the latest treatment strategies and new options for surgery, rehabilitation and more. But does a 36-year-old mother of two children who wants to learn about the risks and benefits of vaccines attend a pediatrics conference? These meetings are great for education of healthcare providers, but they don’t educate the public.

Also read:
Misleading health information
Using social media to improve customer service

Educating our patients in clinic

Next, I’m all for educating patients in our clinics. But all physicians are being asked to see more patients in less time and to devote a good deal of time to electronic medical records. It’s getting harder to spend time with patients, not that we shouldn’t still try.

Just look through the comments in some of my Ask Dr. Geier columns, though. In more than 90% of the 100 to 200 questions I receive each week, the readers have seen orthopaedic surgeons already and usually have had MRIs (and often surgery). They still don’t understand the recommendations of the surgeons. We need to educate our patients, definitely, but social media is helping to fill a communication gap that seems to be widening.

Social media has become most people’s preferred method of communication.

Last, as Bryan Vartabedian, MD (@Doctor_V) perfectly explains in his post called “Doctors and the Fear of Web Permanence” on his 33charts blog, many doctors seem to think that social media is a passing fad. They hope that it will eventually just go away. But that view ignores reality. Replace the term social media with communication. This is how people communicate today and will in the future – through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and channels we haven’t even seen yet.

We need to reach people and educate them where they are conversing instead of expecting them to come to us. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but this view reminds me of the newspaper industry. The newspaper editors largely ignored the internet for many years, thinking people would always want to get their news from a daily paper. We can’t isolate ourselves and refuse to educate the public online. We might find out one day that the people won’t come to us any more.