You’d have to be an ostrich, with your head buried in the proverbial sand for the last five years or so, to be unaware of the fact that most institutions and businesses have social media policies. Or, perhaps the problem is that our social media policies feel so strict that we want to bury our heads in the sand and avoid social media altogether.
When policies focus only on what cannot be done on social media – rather than what can be done – professionals find themselves feeling uncertain. This is especially true for American pediatricians, according to an article published this month in the Medical School Department Chairs section in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Confession: I co-authored this article, titled "Social Media in Pediatrics: A Call for Guidelines," with the help of some fabulous physicians from Cleveland Clinic Children’s. I’d been hired to make recommendations to increase the hospital’s social media and online footprint. While performing due diligence research, I noticed that many medical institutions have social media policies that are prohibitive.
I was looking for best practices and found, instead, that when it comes to social media, most hospital policies restrict rather than empower their employees.
In a recent New York Times magazine article, Su Wei, a novelist and lecturer in Chinese language and literature at Yale, tells a story of growing up in China during its Cultural Revolution. During the Revolution, according to Wei, he was forbidden from reading Chinese poetry and fiction, Western literature, and anything from the Soviet Union. The trouble was this: “Nobody told us specifically what we could read.”
I do not mean to imply that the social media policies at American hospitals are either as important as reading great works of literature or as restrictive as Chairman Mao’s commandments. However, this NYT article resonated with me. If governing bodies establish prohibitive policies about what physicians cannot do – without addressing what they can do – many end up doing nothing at all.
Physician Social Media Use Guidelines
While the difference between a policy and use guidelines may seem semantic, I think it is incredibly important in terms of the adoption and use of new communication technologies like social media. Policies are rules, not suggestions for best practices.
The Cleveland Clinic Children’s article highlights the American Medical Association’s opinion on professionalism in the use of social media as a potential model for other organizations and institutions. The authors (um, myself included) recommend that physicians be relevant, respectful, accurate, and transparent in their social media posts; avoid non-health related commentary about politics or religion; avoid establishing provider-patient relationships online; and be careful whom they friend.
nuviun (me again) asked co-author, Dr. Deb Lonzer, how she navigates social media use in her pediatric practice.
The biggest issue for me has been with ‘friending’ patients. Some of them expect personal banter, or may message you personally. When I’m sharing information online, my purpose is to put information out there. If I get a message from a patient or other Facebook friend and it’s about a medical issue, I respond in a public post that addresses their issue (but maintains their privacy) generically. I provide health information rather than a diagnosis.
Social media can be humanizing, helping physicians to gain the trust by communicating with patients on the patient’s home turf (i.e., their preferred social media site, at a time and place that’s convenient for them, and without a co-pay). Dr. Michelle Medina, co-author of the Social Media in Pediatrics article and pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, told nuviun:
To some degree, effective use of social media to influence others has to have an element of the personal. Patients and families respond when you are approaching them as a fellow human rather than just spouting off facts.
Dr. Lonzer warns, however, that some content—whether it’s a photograph of a physician at a social event, or a political statement—may not be appropriate for physicians to share in social media:
I’ve seen pediatricians post some highly unprofessional and inappropriate pictures of themselves on Facebook. Whether it’s a photograph or the content/language of your message, in public (and online) pediatricians should always remember that the public trusts us with one of their most precious commodities – the health and wellbeing of their children.
There seems to be a bit of a tightrope walk when using social media to maintain the respectability of the medical profession in social media, win new patients, and contribute to valuable conversations about children’s health issues.
The bottom line is well captured by Dr. Medina:
"If you would feel comfortable having your content published in the New York Times, then it’s probably appropriate."
Note: Featured image courtesy of Lars Plougmann.
The nuviun industry network is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.