Social Media for Health Professionals – Benefits and Pitfalls

Twitter Bird

Twitter Bird

I am an avid user of social media – mostly Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress – predominantly for educational and professional purposes.  As a health practitioner, I am well aware that there are concerns about the use of social media for professionals, and that many are still reluctant to engage with social media for fear of getting in trouble, or simply because they can’t understand why they should bother.  This is actually a really good place to start; safety, confidentiality and professionalism are of the utmost importance when it comes to health professionals using social media.

I was first introduced to Twitter for professional purposes during General Practice Registrars Australia (GPRA)‘s “Breathing New Life into General Practice” conference (now the “Future of General Practice” conference) in early 2012, however I must admit that it took me a while to figure out the best way to use social media, rather than just for passing time with my short attention span!  I have already recorded a 5-minute video podcast on this blog site regarding the how and why of social media for health professionals, so if this suits you better, you can find it here.  Otherwise I am going to flesh out why I bother using social media as a rural GP in Australia in this post.

There are multiple reasons for engaging online with social media, including (but not limited to) medical teaching and learning, patient education and health promotion, advocacy, networking and staying up to date.

The most exciting aspect of using social media in my opinion is the expanding world of Free Open Access Medical Education (FOAM/FOAMed/FOAM4GP), especially for isolated rural clinicians.  Believe it or not, there are hundreds of intelligent, highly skiilled, altruistic health professionals out there who are willing to share their knowledge and skills with you.  For free.  No strings attached.  Anytime, anywhere, via social media.  The most enthusiastic and dedicated of these have been (and still are) those working in emergency, critical care and pre-hospital/retrieval medicine.  Some of these greats include Dr. Mike Cadogan (@sandnsurf), Dr. Chris Nickson (@precordialthump) and the team at Life In The Fast Lane, Dr. Casey Parker (@broomedocs) of Broome Docs, Dr. Minh Le Cong (@ketaminh) of PHARM, and Dr. Tim Leeuwenburg (@KangarooBeach) of KI Doc.  There is also an expanding group of enthusiastic GPs contributing to this space through the FOAM4GP blog or their own work, including Dr. Rob Park (@Robapark), Dr. Penny Wilson (@nomadicgp), Dr. Edwin Kruys (@EdwinKruys), Dr. Gerry Considine (@ruralflyingdoc) and Dr. Ewen McPhee (@Fly_texan) to name just a few!  Some health professionals have concerns about the veracity and trustworthiness of information like this online.  One could argue that peer review via social media is more rapid and critical than via any other means.  Ultimately it is still up to the individual to critically appraise online information, just as they would with any other source of information.

Producing material for FOAMed is also a wonderful way to learn and stay up to date.  In the lead up to the RACGP examinations in 2013, several GP registrars, including myself, shared information and ideas, as well as asking questions on Twitter, using the hashtag #GPexams13.  I have since produced a blog post on my study tips for GP registrars as they prepare for their RACGP exams (I can’t comment on ACRRM examinations as I have not sat them).

Health promotion activities are so much easier these days with the rapid and broad dissemination of public health information via social media platforms.  Advocacy campaigns are cheap, easy and extremely effective using social media.  #scrapthecap, #interncrisis, #copaynoway are just a few of the more successful social media campaigns which have been responsible for positive changes in government policy.  Grass-roots campaigns gain momentum quickly through social media.  Two people taking advocacy to the next level on social media are Dave Townsend, medical student and aspiring GP (@futuregp) and Alison Fairleigh, passionate rural mental health advocate (@AlisonFairleigh).  I encourage you to check out their extensive and powerful work online.

Professional isolation is a very real problem for rural practitioners, however social media has been a wonderful way to overcome this, through online networks of like-minded practitioners in similar situations, who can support one another and share ideas from afar.  There are many different Tweet Chats, for example #hcsm (Health Care Social Media) and closed Facebook groups where health professionals can interact online to share ideas and support one another.

I mentioned earlier about my short attention span…sometimes it is nice to just be able to flick through the headlines on Twitter and pick and choose the articles that interest me to either read now or later.  It is a quick and easy way to ensure that you stay up to date with medical news and politics as well as new research findings.  The good thing about Twitter is that you can follow the people or companies that interest you, when you have time.  One of the pitfalls of this, however, is social media addiction; we need to be wary of being antisocial whilst using so-called “social” media!  Another pitfall is the ease and speed with which a person can send out a Tweet or a Facebook post.  If you are going to post more than just an opinion or a quote, keep “The Credible Hulk” in the back of your mind, and make sure that you back up and reference your post with credible sources.

Finally, coming back to the safety concerns around professionals using social media.  It comes down to common sense; if you wouldn’t say it in a crowded elevator, then don’t put it online.  There are a multitude of social media policies and guidelines, indluding AHPRA guidelines. The social media guideline from the Canadian Medical Association is another useful document to have a look at.

In summary, social media use by health professionals has many benefits, including professional support and networking, education, public health promotion and advocacy.  Use of social media requires a common sense approach, keeping basic guidelines for safety, confidentiality and professionalism in mind.  It would be rather sad for people to decide not to use social media at all simply because of safety concerns.  I encourage all health professionals to consider branching out into social media, as it is where a lot of our patients are.  Have fun!


Twitter Bird, 2014-11-03, from Hilarious Pictures,

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