Written by Chadi Alraies MD | Medstar Washington Hospital Center, Washington DC, USA
Like it or hate it, social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, is having an impact on medicine. It is changing the way healthcare providers, including cardiologists, interact with each other and their patients, and it is helping disseminate new research and facilitate discussions about it. Some healthcare providers have embraced social media, but in general they have been slow to adopt it. In some cases, they have good reasons for shying away, including concerns that it is a distraction or a liability. Social media offers more benefits than risks for healthcare providers.
The dynamic nature of social media with its instant availability through our mobile devices is rapidly transforming the way we engage in society. It enhances professional communication. For example, instead of waiting for a conference to discuss new research in person with a handful of colleagues, social media permits virtual discussion with many professionals across the globe instantly.
Social media tools can be used to influence public opinion and policies that affect the entire medical field. A collaborative report by the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., USA found that approximately 75% of all adult Americans utilise social media in some form or another.1 Furthermore, 77% of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 years and 35% of adults >65 years reported using social media in 2015 compared with only 8% and 2% in 2005, respectively. Using Twitter or any other social media network, cardiologists can reach field-based clinical professionals, and can provide academic medicine to patients and the public: two groups that have traditionally been hard to engage. It is worth noticing that when social media is used correctly, there are many important ways that it can improve the medical field. Not only can you spread information faster and engage in a wider discussion with other cardiologists but you may also be able to influence public opinion and help shape policies that affect the entire medical field. We must always keep in mind that elected officials are online just as much as anyone, meaning that they can be exposed to new studies and information that they would otherwise ignore.
The reach of social media will soon impact clinical research. Research shows that social media is an effective way of disseminating original research, guideline statements, cases, images, and review articles, which are considered fundamental components of journal content. Because of its reach, social media allows medical journals to share content with a readership that reaches beyond existing subscribers of the journal. Followers of major peer-reviewed cardiology journals on social media often get access to full-text articles for free.2The purpose of this initiative is to increase readership and disseminate findings to individuals who are not part of the medical establishment and who would not routinely access or read scientific and medical journals. From a metric standpoint, free access to articles using social media platforms will increase article views, downloads, and eventually citations. Moreover, in 2010, Almetric was introduced to track the attention that scholarly articles and datasets receive online. It does this by pulling in data from three main sources: social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, Pinterest as well as blogs. Although Almetric might not affect the journal impact factor or h-index yet, it will impact readers’ opinions and eventually citation.
Patients can also benefit from social media. For example, patients have used different social media platforms to create communities, groups, and hashtags for diseases or certain medical conditions. The purpose of these communities is to share therapy and treatment experiences and ask questions related to the disease. Patients often seek answers from healthcare experts who do not have any presence on social media for reasons that we will disclose later. The presence of experts on social media is becoming a demand more than luxury! Physicians’ engagement with patients using social media will make patients more aware of their disease process, improve their compliance with therapy and beneficial lifestyle changes, and will ultimately result in better outcomes.
Despite the advantage of being dynamic and accessible to public, social media has certain limitations in the medical field. In certain instances, physicians post educational images or videos without blinding the patient name and home institution. Patient privacy is key when using social media. Although there are no guidelines for medical posting on social media, physicians should be vigilant and take care not to violate patients’ privacy. It is hard to control the discussions, and there is potential to deviate from the main objective of the post that was originally published. Differently to the peer-review process, users do not have to declare relevant conflicts of interest, which could give the wrong impression to members of the public who are not experts in the field. The Twitter character limit of ≤140 characters may lead to truncated messages that could be misinterpreted by followers. Lastly, the presence of researchers and clinicians on social media is low in comparison with other segments of the population, which means a large amount of information is put up publicly without proper adjudication. Thus, there is urgent need for experts to be available to review social media posts and give their expert unbiased opinions to help the public make the right choice and get the right impression.
Social media has the potential to change the way we learn about and discuss new research, ask questions about a clinical case, advocate for clinical practice, and share medical opinions. This will not only help keep healthcare providers up-to-date on developments in their field but also potentially save lives.
- Perrin A et al. Social Media Usage: 2005-2015. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/10/PI_2015-10-08_Social-Networking-Usage-2005-2015_FINAL.pdf. Last accessed: 27 February 2017.
- Fox CS et al. Importance of social media alongside traditional medical publications. Circulation. 2016;133(20):1978-83.