Social media has become part of all of our daily lives – just look at the number of smartphones issued, tweets sent and lives lived out on Facebook. Americans spend nearly 25% of their time online on average. We live in an unprecedented time for open and effective communication among health practitioners sharing knowledge, and doctors communicating directly and broadly with patients. So how has the changing consumer landscape impacted the health industry?Consumers are better informed about their own health. For the first time in human history, it’s easy for anyone to access information about myriad health topics and to be in touch with others about these issues via social networks. The many available options include Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, comments posted to a blog, YouTube, wikis, chat rooms, and other social networking sites in addition to a host of health information sites.
There is an expectation among consumers that they can use social media to connect with hospitals and healthcare professionals just as they do in every other part of their lives. Also, today’s patients are more empowered to use social media to take charge of their own health and to join online health communities in this endeavor. A spokesperson for the online physician learning collaborative QuantiaMD said most physicians were not familiar with online patient communities but those who were saw them as having a very high impact on patients and viewed them positively.
The medical community has had a mixed reaction to this demand. Doctors are already some of the most social media-friendly members of society. According to a survey by QuantiaMD, 87% of physicians make personal use of social media, and a slightly lesser amount, 67%, use it professionally. Experts say high social media use among physicians is probably related to their rapid adoption of smartphone and mobile devices.
But regulation has been difficult. Mainly, the medical establishment has been slow to get on board because of the risks involved. Primary among them is the well-founded fear of violating strict patient-privacy laws otherwise known as HIPAA.
A few years ago at a couple hospitals, situations arose in which patient confidentiality was either breached or potentially breached which led to a crackdown on social policy usage. In 2009, New England Baptist Hospital and other Boston-area hospitals banned staff from social media sites, citing HIPAA compliance, patient privacy fears and concerns over workplace productivity.
Last year, Dr. Alexandra Thran, 48, was fired from Westerly Hospital in Rhode Island, reprimanded by the state medical board and banned from working in the emergency room for posting information online about a trauma patient. Partly as a response to this incident, an editorial was recently published by the Annals of Internal Medicine which recommended that physicians not communicate directly with patients through social media, and that they rely on email or secure portals instead.
Today, most hospitals have generally stepped up to create guidelines for their staff’s conduct with respect to social media. Most are open to their doctors and other health practitioners being part of professional or peer-to-peer networks in order to share expertise and further their education. But they are not as open to doctors sharing information with clients or patients.
Recently, Stanford University deemed that doctor participation in Internet “chats or consultations” would be treated as the practice of medicine and governed by the Rules of Practice for the Physicians and Psychologists in the School of Medicine. This ruling has many implications for how Doctors practice medicine in an increasingly digitized world. One where Doctors are the ones using social media and their smartphone perhaps more frequently than their patients.
Hospitals are rightfully concerned about protecting the privacy of their patients, but there seems to be a push from both the doctor and patient side to allow some level of interaction. The medical industry will need to evolve with the changing times to figure out how to serve consumers demands and support Doctors’ use of advanced technology and communication methods. The health industry needs to get more personal.
Clearly, social media is here to stay. The healthcare establishment is starting to get onboard, and over time one hopes it will create regulations that allow freedom of information, useful interaction and simultaneously protect people’s privacy. Who knows what Social Media may look like in the future but in the meantime, these new ways of communicating seem to be rapidly becoming an integral part of the healthcare system.