Every year for the last decade I have been privileged to give an orientation lecture to first year medical students at uOttawa about the professional use of social media for physicians. The following is a long blog post but severely abridged version of this year’s lecture.
This year’s presentation focused on two key themes:
- The social media world has evolved incredibly in the decade that physicians have been using the platforms professionally
- The principles for using social media professionally have not really changed at all
Nothing demonstrates the first point better than the stark change between 2013 – when physicians and medical learners were urged to get on social media and try it out because they were smart people who would quickly learn the ropes – and 2022 when physicians must have a good understanding of social media in order to use the platforms safely.
To use a preaching analogy, this year’s lecture was built around two key texts:
- New guidelines on the use of social media for physicians published by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CSPO) in June of this year.
- This new guidance is particularly important because it represents the pre-eminent guidance physicians in Ontario must follow if they want to avoid charges of professional misconduct
- The guidance reflects the realities of practice in 2022 as the CSPO has been diligent in keeping up with the times.
- Remarks made by Dr. Katharine Smart, a Yukon pediatrician who until recently president of the Canadian Medical Association.
In key quotes that follow, Dr. Smart lays out the rationale for why physicians must use social media channels to advocate for evidence-based care. The quotes are from a podcast interview given by Dr. Smart this summer to the CHA Learning – the educational arm of HealthcareCAN – the organization representing Canada’s healthcare institutions.
“We have assumed that Canadians have access to a trusted source of medical information to make their health decisions. But more and more, that’s not the case. Over 5 million Canadians don’t have access to a family care physician, which has always been that source of trusted health information. In parallel we’ve had this evolution of that social media environment where so many people now are going to get information. So we’ve got declining access to experts (but) increasing access to information and we know that on social media health information is often poor. A recent study showed that 87% of posts about health on social media contain some sort of misinformation. We have to reimagine ourselves a bit as physicians and what our role is in terms of stepping into the public to share information and to counterbalance misinformation, in an effort to improve the health of the public as a whole and communities.”
We’ve got to be on spaces like TicTok, Twitter, Instagram, where a lot more people are interacting, and package our information differently for different ages and different segments of the population.
When you’re in public spaces, and people know you’re a physician, you are representing the profession, whether you want to be or not. It’s just part of what goes along with the privilege of something like being a physician.”
Dr. Smart also makes the points that social media is not for all physicians but those who choose to use the platforms need the appropriate education to do so – something that is often lacking at the medical learner stage. She also talks about how useful social media has been for her in networking with her peers.
Dr. Smart’s comments are mirrored by the new emphasis that the CPSO guidelines place on physicians only sharing information on social media that is evidence-based. This new emphasis comes directly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the proliferation of non-scientific views by some physicians.
Why consider using social media or social networks professionally as a medical student or physician?
Social networking is a key component of the digital world where physicians now have to practice. To quote Dr. Bertalan Mesko, a Hungarian physician and leading futurist, from a few years ago: “Today’s medical professionals must be masters of different skills that are related to using digital devices or online solutions and mastering those skills is now a crucial skill set that all medical professionals require.” Changes forced upon medical practice by the pandemic have made this even more important.
I believe part of what Dr. Stern is referring to is the fact that patients use social media extensively to talk about medical matters in general or even their own health. Broader conversations about health policy are also happening there. This has been particularly true since the pandemic.
So, arguably to understand or to participate in those conversations you need a social media presence.
I list here what I believe to be the key ways in which medical learners and physicians can use social media to stay informed
- Follow selective media outlets who often post news first on social media channels before more traditional outlets.
- Follow trusted individuals who curate useful medical information and provide links to original sources.
- Monitor selected journal releases in a timely fashion.
- Up to date clinical information can be obtained following medical conference hashtags. The recent European cardiology conference #ESCCongress is a great example of this.
- Interact with experts
- Monitor important conversations around medical issues – everything from masks in the pandemic to proper airway management
Social media is not only a great way of networking with peers, colleagues, experts and patient advocates but social media channels can also be a powerful way of building alliances. Through networking and use of social media women physicians and racialized physicians have become far more empowered and they have used their social networks for support when challenged by others.
Social media can also be a powerful means of providing inspiration and just provide “feel good” moments at a time when the medical profession needs this more than ever.
Social media is IRL and more and more physicians and others are sharing their lives – not just with friends on Facebook but even in the world on Twitter and LinkedIn.
They’re sharing life changing events in their lives on Twitter. Births, deaths, breakups and breakdowns. They are also sharing what they see and feel and this has been particularly event in relation to COVID-19.
I would argue this is part of a bigger picture. The role of physicians in society is changing – as is the way the medical profession views its own commitment to society.
Unlike a decade ago physicians often maintained separate existences on social media with different accounts for their personal and professional lives – now more and more they are merging the two. The CPSO guidance acknowledges this while stressing that physicians should act professionally however they are using social media.
This personalized approach has been indirectly endorsed by a court decision in Saskatchewan Court of Appeal – the province’s highest court, in a case involving a nurse which stated in 2020 that “Nurses, doctors, lawyers and other professionals are also sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters.” Mr. Justice Brian Barrington-Foote went on to say: “They are dancers and athletes, coaches and bloggers, and community and political volunteers. They communicate with friends and others on social media. They have voices in all of these roles. The professional bargain does not require that they fall silent.”
In an interview in 2021, new CMA president Dr. Alika Lafontaine said this sharing by physicians has been powerfully cathartic. “I’ve never heard so many physicians actually share the pain that they go through day after day. I’m both sad, as I hear the stories, and hopeful, because we’re sharing the lived reality of what we’re going through.
The bottom line is that you can maintain and professional presence on social media and interact professionally while also being a human being and sharing – to whatever degree you feel appropriate – your personal life.
I liken it to being a physician in a small community. You care for patients but you also shop in the local grocery store and take your kids to soccer practice.
The whole issue of whether physicians should maintain two separate personal and professional accounts on social media arises here as well. Two Canadian physicians Drs, Blair Bigham and Sarah Fraser addressed it in a blog post on the BMJ Opinion site. They state physicians should “embrace authenticity and reunite their personal and professional selves. In times like these, we must … make a therapeutic relationship with the public to advocate effectively, and the work of advocacy requires revealing our true selves.”
For every why there is a why not. Ten years ago I didn’t dwell on this but the world has changed and social media have become far more malignant and risky for physicians to use.
Social media has become an ugly, nasty place inhabited by trolls, spamBots and others It can make physicians feel unwelcome and unsafe. There are also any instances in last few years where physician camaraderie has broken down and pitched doctors against each other especially along seniority and gender lines. This has helped highlight fundamental inequities that continue to exist within the practice of medicine.
It takes a certain fortitude and outlook to be able to advocate strongly on social media about divisive issues and it’s not for everyone. It’s impossible to have heated but constructive discussions within the confines of Twitter or other limited social media channels. And the abuse has caused some physicians to abandon Twitter for the relative professional safety of LinkedIn or just to retreat to their small personal social circles on Facebook.
Physicians who plan to use social to promote social causes need to be prepared for abuse that far exceeds what we consider acceptable.
Advice on how physicians should respond to harassment on social media must now, unfortunately, become part of any educational exercise. The following tips come from Dr. Najma Ahmed, a Toronto trauma surgeon and founder of Canadian Doctors for Protection From Guns.
Over the years I have reworded and whittled down advice on how medical learners and physicians can and should use social media professionally, but the advice has remained the same.
Respecting patient confidentiality remains the number one tenet of this advice. Never post anything that will identify a patient unless they very clearly and explicitly request it.
The CSPO and other physician regulatory bodies wants physicians to act on social media in a way that won’t damage the reputation of the profession. On the other hand we have many physicians, especially women, pushing back against the idea that professionalism means being well-dressed, well-behaved, polite, and deferential to authority.
This may be best represented by the hashtag #MedBikini movement which emerged a couple of years ago. Leading social media commentator and pediatric gastroenterologist Dr Bryan Vartabedian blogged about the issue and I quote him at length here:
“A study published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery line itemed the apparent transgressions of a group of surgical trainees. The study, Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons, cited breaches of professionalism including wearing swimwear (medbikini), drinking alcohol, profanity and commenting on controversial social topics. Their criteria for unprofessional were based on previously published studies from as recent as 2017. As news got out medtwitter had its own 2020 cancel culture moment under the hashtag MedBikini with thousands of tweets showcasing the unprofessional elements identified in the study. Then bending to post-publication review, the study was retracted on the basis of its methodology and concerns for bias. The faulty foundation of this paper is its failure to understand the standards of medicine’s digital culture. The assumptions about alcohol, bathing suits, language and the public discussion of controversial subjects reflect dated standards about how doctors engage and communicate in a global community. And so this paper is something I might have seen a decade ago when the medical world was petrified that Twitter might be used to share pictures of doctors in bikinis. Times, of course, have changed.”
Dr. Jessica Pearce, an ob/gyn had a more blunt take in a different blog post at the same time:
“Our bodies may have tattoos, ride motorcycles, or compete in pole fitness competitions for sport. None of that impacts our practice of medicine negatively. It’s past time we start celebrating the strength of our bodies and hold accountable those who try to negate our accomplishments with an ill-perceived attitude of sexism and misogyny.”
I closed the 2022 lecture with a quick overview of what I see as current trends relevant to the use of social media by physicians.
Social media channels continue to provide a valuable resource for medical learners and physicians who choose to make use of them.
But more so than ever in 2022, physicians must take the time and make the effort to use these channels in ways in which they are comfortable and feel safe. And more so than ever, they need the education to do this safely.
(A caveat: This presentation was built for an audience of medical learners. As such it does not stress the critical role social media channels have played in helping patients and caregivers also build communities and information channels to strengthen their roles on the health care team)