We get mixed messages about the world of social media. It is described as both an untamed wilderness full of dangerous pitfalls and an unlimited resource of vital information. We hear dreadful stories of doctors slitting their professional throats with imprudent comments. At the same time we read testimony of physicians who saved lives because of a chance kernel of knowledge that fell into their surfing laps.
The truth is that the internet and particularly the social media in all their manifestations are both ubiquitous and ever-changing. There are both dangers and riches of opportunities to be found there. Like all things in life, the outcome depends on what you are able to put in and how much you know about it.
We at Peer Spectrum are no more knowledgeable about the vagaries of the Internet than any of you our readers. Chances are you know as much or more than we do. But through collective and sometimes painful experience as well as innate common sense we have put together an approach that we feel avoids the pitfalls and protects you as a professional user in the social media world:
- Stop and Smell All the Flowers – In other words, take a good look around before you plunge in to any communication on social media. Like a city, the Internet has safe and dangerous areas so it’s good to get a sense of the lay of the land. If you want to establish a Twitter feed or a YouTube channel, spend some time looking at what is already out there. That will save you the trouble of reinventing the wheel, show you what has been well received and most importantly reveal the tone of on-line discussions. Read the notes and comment sections and make sure that where you are going to post is not a minefield or a swamp.
- Separate Work From Play – If you are on Twitter or Facebook as a professional, try to maintain that status wherever possible. Don’t use a work feed to show off your hobbies or share humorous videos, unless you think your personal interests will give people some insight into you as a professional. One way to separate the two “yous” is to have completely different feeds for your work and your home. But resist the temptation to follow or like yourself from the other site. We recommend you try to keep the work site as far removed as possible from anything that you might have on your personal computer.
- Remember Who You Are – Social media are great platforms for self-expression with the added benefit of being done at a safe distance and with some measure of anonymity. It is far too easy to rip off a response to something you see or read without having to worry about any real world repercussions. But there are significant consequences to much of what you post. An angry response can follow you to other aspects of your internet footprint. If you offend someone by chance or on purpose, that user can attack you on other platforms both to your face and behind your back.
But there are other aspects unique to your role as a medical professional. Remember that HIPAA is in effect for all medical communications including social media. Even a story like “I treat a guy who…” may be recognizable without identifiers such as name, age or location. There are secure (HIPAA protected) sites for exchanging information and advice about cases (SERMO, Medscape, etc.) but if you are unsure as to the level of security you should refrain from even anecdotal discussion without careful attempts to generalize (such as “some people who have this pathology are known to…”).
Finally remember the responsibility (and potential liability) you have as a medical pro. When users read your posts they will accept your opinions as informed and definitive. They may be inclined to treat what you write as medical advice despite your intent. Make sure that everything you write is well-founded and authoritative. Don’t delve into medical matters where you don’t have expertise. And try not to respond to specific cases or questions for medical advice. Resist being the sage as satisfying as that role may be.
- The Internet is Forever – Everything you post or say can be found again, even if you delete it. Internet and social media posts cannot be protected or made non-discoverable in legal settings. Be aware that everything you have ever posted or shared contributes to both your internet and your community reputation.
- Is That What You Meant To Say? – Users who visit your site are likely to come from a wider range of locations and walks of life than in your personal practice. You should be very careful to stay as neutral in terms of regional and other biases as you can on order to avoid putting anybody off. The same is true of politics and religion. Unless you are very sure that your personal views are an integral part of your professional message, they should be left off of any formal on-line communication.
- Beware the “time sink” – It is very easy to get caught up in the entertainment and companionship that social media provide. But your professional time is precious. Be careful of the noise and the frank waste of time that even professionally oriented sites such as Linked In may cause.
- Eliminate the Negative – There is so much despair and rage expressed on social media. If you are already angry at the government or an insurance company it is easy to get lost in the morass of negative thoughts that are present. These sites are not the best place to get news or information and may only serve to feed your anger.
- Safety In Numbers – The most effective way to use any of the social media may be to find a group of users to share information. Professional sites often have special interest subgroups but even widely used sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram have established groups for a wide range of interests. Members of the groups share posts and links so save you the effort of scanning the entire internet to find the sites. A lot of these groups are by invitation so that gives another measure of security and validity to what is posted.
In summary, social media are part of the fabric of our society. A medical professional cannot ignore but should not be consumed by it. The same rigors of safety, quality and efficiency should govern your use of the internet as in all aspects of your professional life.