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Healthcare: Don’t Fear the “What Ifs” in Social Media

Hands of a doctor typing at a laptop with colleagues talking in background

Editor’s Note: On June 14, 2013 Farris K. Timimi, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media spoke at Albert Einstein College of Medicine during a faculty development session associated with a social media grant Einstein received in 2012. Einstein is one of four medical schools in the United States selected for the Education and Training to Professionalism Initiative by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. One goal of the grant is to promote online professionalism among students and faculty.

We asked Farris about the importance of social media and healthcare in advance of his talk. Here’s what he had to say.

Why has healthcare, a profession that has roots firmly planted in the power of communication, been so reluctant to consider social networking and social media as forms of engagement? Whenever I visit with providers and organizations that seem hesitant to explore social networking, they usually share a series of reasons for their hesitancy, all of which fall into a broad category that I refer to as “what ifs.” What if we have a patient privacy violation? What if social media access makes our employees less efficient and productive? What if my already extensive clinical time demands prevent me from participating in social media? What if a mistake happens, and it is digitally advertised to a much larger audience? What if poor “phone hygiene” affects clinical care? (This brings to mind the seemingly common image of the intern who spends the bulk of morning rounds on a smartphone.)

Fundamentally, these potential concerns, these “what ifs,” and our resultant reluctance to meet our patients where they are spending the majority of their time, do more than limit our capacity for engagement.

These fears limit our capacity for change.

While these concerns all are grounded in good intentions, as a group they reflect a vision of an archetypal healthcare professional that is a powerful and ubiquitous one—but one that truly resides in the past. Unfortunately, what these “what ifs” really suggest is a vision of medicine that is discordant with our still rapidly evolving new reality; they simply do not reflect the character of our lives. In this new world, our patients and coworkers are spending more and more of their time in social networks—nearly 110 billion minutes per day worldwide (putting those minutes in perspective, that is nearly 210,000 years)—which translates into roughly one-fourth of all the time that is spent online. In addition, while our patients are online, they are spending a good portion of their time looking for healthcare information; it is the third most common online activity. In essence, they are searching for knowledge about their diagnoses, doctors, and diseases. While most of them start their hunt by performing a general search, about a third of them end up finding their answers on social networking sites. And most of the answers they find on those sites are generated by other online patients; the information is not content that is created or curated by healthcare professionals.

I believe this is the real “what if” that we need to focus on. Our opportunities and obligations as healthcare professionals are to put valuable content into the hands of our patients. We can accomplish this best by employing our individual organizations’ greatest asset—our human bandwidth. Strategically bringing these two groups—our patients and our coworkers—together is an intervention that carries with it a real capacity for powerful and meaningful change.

Social networking tools have the power to alter the practice of medicine, to change how we work with and work for our patients. This capacity for archived, scalable engagement extends beyond the limited analogy that is often used to explain social media: superficial tweets sent from a music concert. These tools have the capacity to change how healthcare providers share information and engage with each other, with patients and with our world.

However, just as surgical interns on their first rotations, scalpels in hand, really need orientation, training and guidance before their first incisions, social networking tools require us to have guidelines, orientation and training if we are to make them effective and meaningful—to change them from potential liabilities to powerful assets. In addition, just as there is a wide variety of medical tools to choose from in medicine, there is a wide variety of social networking tools you can choose from, each of which has different properties and the capacity to reach different target audiences, and it is vital that you select the right tool for your needs. To do this strategically requires that you comprehend social networking as a paradigm and that you have competence with the tools in the toolkit.

Fundamentally, we simply cannot choose to mitigate the perceived risk of social networking by eliminating participation.

I truly believe that one of our primary obligations as healthcare providers is to walk with our patients on their journey through illness and disease. To do so in the current era requires that we join them where they are waiting for us: online.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Schenk June 12, 2013, 3:19 PM

    I agree with your points Dr. Timimi. I especially agree with your last statement.

    “I truly believe that one of our primary obligations as healthcare providers is to walk with our patients on their journey through illness and disease. To do so in the current era requires that we join them where they are waiting for us: online.”

    Thanks for sharing this post with us, you have some great insights for us all to ponder.

  • @cmaer (Pat Rich) June 13, 2013, 6:27 AM

    Great column.
    However, in numerous discussions with physicians about social media it is not that they focus on theperceived risks of social networking but rather that they do not see it as adding anything to the work they are already doing.

    Physicians feel the true interaction with patients involves a direct encounter on a face-to-face basis.

    Except for those doctors who wish to, and have the time to, communicate with a broader public through social media they do not see social networking as adding anything substantive to the job they are currently doing.

    In addition, they hear from both their licensing bodies and insurance agencies about the potential risks of engaging with patients on social media platforms. They also realize there is a time commitment that many feel they cannot afford especially when trying to deal with the work-life balance.

    While I personally agree with your main thesis that physicians have an obligation to “meet” patients online, those doctors who choose to do so remain firmly in the minority. And I remain challenged on what we can do to change thosenumbers

  • Farris Timimi June 13, 2013, 1:52 PM

    Thanks Pat

    I appreciate your comments and observations, and I frankly I fully agree. The critical issue for engaging reluctant individual providers centers on identifying their particular operational need, and then associating the right tool with the opportunity or challenge that they face. To do so requires that they have comprehension in the toolset, rather than initial competence (that can be achieved later). It does require guidelines, orientation, training and a culture of engagement. Frankly, without a thoughtful strategic approach, our capacity to access our provider human bandwidth will be truly limited, but when explored in a strategic fashion, the majority of those who are reluctant can be reached.