Photo by Airman Magazine/Flickr
Among the many instruments your doctor uses — stethoscope, thermometer, scale — the most valuable one may be in her pocket: a smartphone.
Due to increasingly compressed office visits, patients are becoming more active participants in managing their healthcare, and a new generation of Internet-savvy physicians is using social media to improve the way they run their practices. The goal isn’t to replace face time with patients but to provide teaching tools, stay abreast of breaking medical research, and communicate more efficiently with patients.
Currently, 67 percent of physicians use social media — sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest — for professional purposes, according to a recent report released by the Federation of State Medical Boards. And patients are taking their relationships with their medical providers online. One Yahoo Facebook user reported that her nurse practitioner gives advice over the social networking site, while another said sharing photos and videos can even save her a trip to the office.
“Social media is changing the way people give and receive information and, as a result, the medical profession is changing, too,” Lee Aase, social media director at the Mayo Clinic, tells Yahoo Health. “Twitter has been invaluable. For example, if a patient tweets a photo of their symptoms to a doctor, he or she probably wouldn’t diagnose them online, but they could tweet back a link to a resource or a number to call to set up an in-person visit.” The clinic was one of the earlier organizations to adapt to social media and hosts regular “tweet camps” and residencies where doctors learn to use Twitter responsibly.
On the extreme end, surgeons are even live-tweeting their operations (with patient permission) to educate medical students and demystify the experience for prospective patients and nervous family members in the waiting room. Three such operations took place in 2009. One at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan, where doctors removed a cancerous tumor from a man’s kidney; another at Aurora Health Care in Wisconsin, where orthopedic surgeons performed a double-knee replacement surgery; and a third at Sherman Hospital in Illinois, where a woman’s uterus was removed. Two more occurred in 2012 at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital where doctors removed a brain tumor from a 21-year-old patient. Details of every snip and stitch were live-tweeted and photos and videos were posted on Pinterest and YouTube, ultimately reaching an audience of 14.5 million people. Several months prior, the hospital was the first to live-tweet open-heart surgery, broadcasting to 125 million people.
“In these cases, the physician will usually wear a headset that takes photos and videos and dictate his tweets to a public relations rep sitting in the operating room,” Kevin Pho, MD, co-author of “Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices,” tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a great way for surgeons to be transparent, as long as Twitter doesn’t cause distractions.” Pho uses his own blog to “share stories from behind the curtain” — clarify medical misinformation, publish posts written by his colleagues, and answer common patient questions such as, “Why is my doctor so late to appointments?”
Physicians are also using YouTube to publicize their skill sets and dehumanize the doctor-patient relationship. “If a doctor has a certain specialty, posting a YouTube video enables them to highlight their expertise for prospective patients,” says Aase. “It’s also a way for patients to get acquainted with their doctor so the upcoming visit feels more personable.” The videos can also serve as a time saver — by watching a two-minute segment on say, car-seat safety or vaccination basics, patients gain baseline knowledge and, as a result, use their office visit time more efficiently.
For practices such as MacArthur OB/GYN in Irving, Texas, patients use the group’s Facebook page to foster a sense of community by uploading funny photos from doctor visits and get invitations for doctor-patient meet-and-greets. The group’s Twitter account also boasts nearly 4,000 followers who can get answers to questions such as, “Is it safe to fly while pregnant?”
There are also a slew of apps that serve both patients and doctors. “First Derm” users can diagnose a sexually transmitted disease within 24 hours for a $40 fee, according to TechCrunch. That’s more expensive than a co-pay, the website points out, but it saves people the time and potential embarrassment of schlepping to an office visit. Users snap two photos of the area (one close up, the other from far away), then fill out an online form (identifying details are not required) and provide a credit card number. The app claims that more than 70 percent of its cases can be treated with over-the-counter medication and the rest require office visits.
The app “Figure 1” is also gaining popularity among the medical set. Dubbed “Instagram for doctors,” it allows professionals to swap and discuss medical photos. The app’s founder, Canadian internist Josh Landy, MD, told Business Insider that his colleagues now have the ability to view photos of rare diseases on real patients whose identities are obscured. “This is no substitute for caring for a patient, but now instead of saying there is a red rash, you can say this is what it looks like,” he told the website. “Now everybody has that capability in their pocket all day long.”
While there’s no doubt that social media is improving patient-doctor relationships — for example, during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, emergency responders were able to act faster after checking Twitter for real-time updates — social media-savvy doctors can also pose privacy risks. In May, an Ohio woman being treated for Syphilis sued the University of Cincinnati for posting the results of her tests, along with her name, on Facebook. And in December, an intoxicated Chicago woman treated in the ER at Northwestern Memorial Hospital sued her doctor after he allegedly posted photos of her on Facebook and Instagram along with the hashtags “Cuvee #bottle #service #gone #bad.” There are also laws preventing doctors from practicing medicine from across state lines, so if a Twitter user in Indiana tweets a doctor in Los Angeles, the MD may not actually be allowed to give him the answer he’s looking for. And national HIPAA laws are put in place to protect the privacy of patient’s identifiable health information online.
But there’s one more inevitable drawback of the medical community’s foray into social media. “It’s difficult to have my own private life,” says Pho. “I keep my personal social media accounts very private. At the end of the day, even off the clock, I’m still a doctor.”