Are social media (for doctors) an evolutionary dead end

The numbers can no longer be denied.
The largest and most comprehensive survey of Canadian physicians on the topic of social media has found a distressingly low minority of these doctors are using social media for professional purposes.
Doctors are not tweeting, they are not using Facebook and they are not posting videos for their patients.
The numbers:
• Fewer than 1 in 10 Canadian doctors use social networks such as Facebook (9%) for professional purposes
• Fewer than 5% use Twitter, blogging or discussion forums for professional use
• There were no notable differences in use of social media for professional reasons among those physicians under the age of 65.
• In their personal life, 40% of physicians overall and 72% of those under age 60 use social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Twenty-three percent of all respondents and 33% of those under the age of 35 use media sharing sites such as YouTube. One in 10 use Twitter for personal reasons.
These figures from the recently released National Physician Survey (NPS) with responses from more than 10,000 doctors confirm earlier research I have done on behalf of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and written about here (Everybody Is Not Doing It – At Least in Canada) and presented at conferences such as the recent Medicine 2.0 conference (Where Is Everyone?) These earlier surveys could be faulted for involving a relatively small number of self-selected physicians participating in the CMA ePanel. But the statistics from the NPS are undeniable and they raise serious questions for those promoting the use of social media in health care.
While the Canadian statistics are self-reported the overall picture cannot be challenged and it is a puzzling picture indeed because it runs so contrary to statistics from countries such as the U.S. where the general perception is that most physicians are using social media professionally (see for example a Nov. 13 commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine which states “With a majority of physicians now using social media …).
With most social media tools and platforms having been around for a decade or so, we must face the realization that despite what peer leaders such as CMA President Dr. Chris Simpson and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada lead Dr. Ali Jalali say and do, the Canadian medical profession is not integrating social media into their professional lives – even when guidelines from their professional organizations state the value of doing so.
Given the degree to which social media use has become the norm in Canadian society as a communication and networking tools, this refusal of Canadian physicians to use the tools represents a serious omission.
The reasons Canadian doctors are not using social media in their practices are clear and obvious – they see no benefit and several perceived and real risks to their professional lives. This is not going to change any time soon despite what people may say to the contrary.
For those of us who live and breathe social media in health care, the statistics should come as a sobering reminder that the doctors we are interacting with on these platforms representing a tiny and unrepresentative section of the medical profession. They should also cause us to redouble our efforts to inform and educate physicians about how social media can safely be used to help them gather information, disseminate information, and most importantly interact with the rest of the world that sees social media use as the norm.
But they should also cause us to ask whether social media tools and platforms as currently constituted just do not add anything substantive to the practice of medicine for most physicians.


7 thoughts on “Are social media (for doctors) an evolutionary dead end

  1. It is always difficult to define “use”. If someone signs up for an account, and never uses it again, is that “use”? I think that, with many new things, it is like the Hype cycle: lots of interest at first, then a period of diminishing interest. The real key is what happens after that. Do people stick with it, or not? Maybe that is the real question. I think the key to success of social media for physicians and other heathcare providers is whether they find value in it, for professional or personal reasons. If they find no value, their “use” will drop. If they find some value, it is likely to continue in some way.

  2. You are so right, Pat. “…the doctors we are interacting with on these platforms represent a tiny and unrepresentative section of the medical profession.” In essence, these are the outliers of medicine, not the parade leaders.

    I think it’s our (mis)perception that most physicians are using social media professionally because we ourselves, as you say, “live and breathe social media in health care.” A rather neat example of hegemonic assumptions at play!

    Canada is not alone in this “evolutionary dead end”, however. A recent survey by MedData Group found very comparable results among U.S. physicians: just 5% are on Twitter at work, for example; those who aren’t mostly cite “concerns about privacy and time.” FYI, more at:

    But here’s what concerns me more than how many docs are tweeting: it’s the lost opportunities to pro-actively recommend to their own patients the online support and information that could really help those patients.

    Docs may not be on social media, but their patients sure are. And if physicians don’t mind that their patients are getting second opinions from the likes of Drs Oz or Mercola, patients will continue to buy the snake oil. There’s a lot of unadulterated online trash out there, which may help to explain why so many physicians don’t want any part of it. But ironically, by NOT participating themselves, they are simply opening the doors wider for the quacks.

    When I spoke at the eHITS conference in Vancouver this spring (thanks again for that recommendation, Pat!), I asked the 300+ physicians in my audience: “How many of you follow or recommend patient blogs?” Just one hand shot up (belonging to Dr. Kendall Ho – one of the conference organizers and the person who had invited me to speak!) I showed slide after slide of my own favourite patient blogs, online patient forums and Twitter pages (from diabetes to breast cancer and IBD, and everything in between). How truly helpful would it be, I asked my audience, to hand your newly-diagnosed and overwhelmed T1 diabetes patient a prescription referring that person to a site like Kim Vlasnik’s amazing “You Can Do This” project? I also asked my audience members if they really wanted to abdicate their traditional role as health care educators so that the Jenny McCarthys of the world could take over for them?

    Whatever we’re saying to docs to convince them to embrace a role they’re clearly not interested in, it’s not working.

  3. I echo Carolyn Thomas’s comments. The gap left behind will be filled by all comers, making your own jobs more difficult. I embraced social media to find the information my doctors were too slow or unwilling to provide. I had to become discerning very quickly, and learn to limit my time on social media too (if you’re not careful, it will eat your time up) but it was invaluable support, leading me to sack my unsatisfactory doctors and move on to one who takes time to research.

    If you’re not fast, you’re last.

  4. Hello
    I’m not surprised by these statistics and wasn’t under any illusion that uptake was greater. And I have never stated a need for health professionals to engage in the forthright way that you are because I don’t think that it exists. Yes I will help health professionals understand how they MAY benefit but I wouldn’t shun them for not doing so.
    By the way, my social media presence is not something that directly benefits my patients. But because it may help me develop my practice it might help them indirectly. Even with all the time I have spent here (which was with the aim of developing as an educator rather than a doctor) I don’t have enough evidence to say that the doctor colleagues I meet day to day should be following the same pathway as me. And I don’t think that this is odd or surprising.

  5. We are facing a disruptive change. The “paper” based medical culture is evolving toward a digital and online new culture. I don’t wonder doctors and health system inertia.

    When colleagues realize social media benefits overcome risks the turning point will be here.


  6. I think many professionals are worried about legal implications when using social media to interact with patients. We should overcome these fears as we can’t afford to renounce to this fantastic way of direct interaction.

  7. Pingback: SERMO Launches Physician-Only Community in Canada - Sermo

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