Curating Content via Social Media: A New Role for Physicians

socialized_medicineBy Matt Hawkins, MD

Social media in health care is all the rage. Set up a Twitter account, get a Facebook page—heck, even start a Pinterest account for your office or group. Mix it together with a little video content, SEO, and a flashy URL, and you may be able to find some ROI from your social media efforts. It’s modern. It sounds complicated and advanced. And many social media experts who are dabbling in health care are pushing the merit and success of this marketing strategy.

But should this be the role social media plays in a physician practice? Should hospitals use Twitter as a digital billboard with viral potential? Marketing is important, but is it appropriate for physicians who are entering the social media space?

I believe that serving as content curators is more aligned with the oath we took. Social media provides a contemporary platform for physicians to acquire, screen, compile, and manage information we want our patients to have.

The 21st-century patient has access to information like never before. You’ve seen the numbers: 85 percent of US adults use the Internet. 72 percent of those use the Internet to look for health information. (How many of your patients have asked you about the controversial breast cancer screening trial recently published in BMJ?) But that information comes from all types of sources—some legitimate, some less so.

Sure, there are big-brand resources for health information: Mayo Clinic, WebMD, and so forth. These are excellent compilations. There are innovative projects currently underway to crowd-source web content through a variety of “human touch” resources in an effort to curate and compile medical information for patients and physicians; Webicina comes to mind. These large-scale information warehouses are game-changers for health care in this era that embraces transparency and communication.

But might patients want your opinion rather than a PR-approved message from a big brand name? Yes, they do—and we owe it to them. We can provide our views along with supportive, authoritative information via social media.

What do you think about annual mammography for women? What about CT scans in children? Are HPV vaccines safe? How about prostate cancer screening – does it work? Is CT colonography going to become mainstream?

Just think of the information you can provide for your patients. Public health, specialty-specific content, medication information: The possibilities are endless.

We talk about the doctor–patient relationship all the time. We cite its centrality to our profession without a second thought; just uttering the phrase conjures images of Norman Rockwell paintings. But what is the doctor–patient relationship in 2014? Today, patients seek your opinion on information they’ve already gathered. They move around a lot. They choose physicians based on peer recommendations.

I don’t mean to imply that personal relationships, developed over time, are less important now. But many 21st-century patients—e-patients—already have formed an opinion about us before we meet. If we want to be masters of the contemporary doctor–patient relationship, we must be reliable, timely suppliers of information and interpretation that patients want. Otherwise, they will go to WebMD and then just see us for prescriptions.

“But I am just one person,” you say. “I can’t put the entire Harrison’s text on my blog.” And you’re right. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that every physician should provide encyclopedic medical knowledge in cryptic 140-character, hashtag-ridden messages or curate medicine’s entire knowledge base. But perhaps your group could produce a series of blog posts about topics most important to your specialty, sharing the writing responsibilities. Or if you are personally passionate about a public health topic, consistently provide your opinions and pre-screened information for your patients via Twitter. Some national organizations have begun to broadcast specialty-specific content in a more savvy, social-media–friendly way, which you can translate for patients. There are a variety of ways to approach our role as curators.

If we embrace this crucial role—as curators of meaningful and trustworthy medical information—we can take the first step towards establishing a doctor–patient relationship before patients Google us or visit our Twitter profiles. This is one way all physicians can make a difference with social media.

Am. College of Radiology-AMCLCMatt Hawkins, MD, is a Vascular Interventional Radiology Fellow at the University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Hospital. He is always interested in learning how to improve the efficiency, quality, and capability of health care. Reach him on Twitter @MattHawkinsMD.