“Doctoring” in the Age of Social Media

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Published in June Issue             

Do you tweet? How many followers do you have? How many likes? What’s trending? Create a hashtag. Want to do a selfie? The social media revolution has created a new vocabulary and a new ability to communicate to hundreds, even millions (if you’re Katy Perry or Justin Bieber) about what’s on your mind or in your camera in the time it takes to push a button on
your smartphone.

Is social media just what the doctor ordered to help patients and potential patients better understand health issues like obesity and what to do about them or is social media a reservoir of misleading information health professionals should stay away from?

“As healthcare professionals, we can take an attitude of writing off social media as an irrelevant platform and something to steer our patients away from or we can take control of the information our patients see by contributing and sharing evidence based information,” said ASMBS member Pam Davis, RN, CBN, MBA, from Nashville, who is active on Facebook, Twitter (@BariBelle), Instagram and Pinterest. “Consumers see a story on a new weight loss treatment and they are prompted to have a conversation about treatment options with their PCP. Patients see friends, family members and celebrities sharing before and after photos and testimonials and now treatment becomes less intimidating. Why would you not take advantage of this opportunity to engage and support your patients?”

Facebook, launched in 2004, is the biggest player on the social media scene. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, nearly 80 percent of adults who use the internet are on Facebook; 32 percent are on Instagram; 31 percent are Pinterest users;
29 percent are on LinkedIn and 24 percent are on Twitter.

Neil Floch, MD, is a prolific user of Twitter for both himself and the ASMBS. He was asked to manage the ASMBS Twitter account in March 2016 when it had 3,500 followers. Today, @ASMBS has nearly 20,000 followers
and growing.

“Social media is a mechanism to influence human thinking toward obesity, diabetes and the benefits of surgery. I thought Twitter was best and provided the ability to communicate with the most people and some of the most unique people, such as celebrities and scientists, most effectively,” said Dr. Floch (@NeilFlochMD), who himself has 123,000 people following him on Twitter.

Dr. Floch believes health professionals have a responsibility in making sure balanced and accurate information is disseminated online, even if it’s done 140 characters at a time, a character limit Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says is a “beautiful constraint.”


Neil Floch, MD

Studies have shown social media use in healthcare can complement healthcare provider information and offer psychosocial support from others who confront similar health issues. On the other hand, anybody is free to offer “medical advice” whether they are a health professional or not. When it comes to obesity, there have been many cases of fat shaming, which continues to this day.

“There are as many myths and misconceptions concerning obesity as there are facts. It is the role of responsible physicians and scientists to confront the people and the information that they create so that the public can make informed decisions based on medically proven fact, not fiction that is produced by individuals with economically driven agendas. Twitter has
the capability of linking one individual with the world, bypassing traditional media,”
Dr. Floch said.

John M. Morton, MD, past president of ASMBS and chief, bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Stanford School of Medicine views social media as a double-edged sword.

“I have mixed views on social media and medicine,” said Dr. Morton (@jmortonMD).
“Patients can communicate with each other for social support and it can raise consumer and professional awareness of health-related issues and activities, but at the same time, there is a real need to be careful regarding privacy.”

In a World Health Organization bulletin from 2009, author Christine McNab wrote, “Twitter and other social media tools might not bring health to all, but they can help to bring accurate health information to many more people than ever before. After all, one fact sheet or an emergency message about an outbreak can be spread through Twitter faster than any influenza virus. It’s an opportunity for health professionals to explore, listen and engage.”

One recent estimate puts the number of health professionals using Twitter at more than 75,000, but many more health professionals are still reluctant to jump in because they don’t feel it’s credible or they simply don’t have the time, though things are changing quickly.

“Accepting social media is a hurdle that most physicians find difficult to accept as our time is limited. It is important for all physicians to appreciate the power of social media to communicate with our colleagues and educate the public. Currently, Twitter is most powerful in achieving these goals and remains an important component of a doctor’s professional career. Starting with 15 minutes daily of social media time and limiting it to a maximum of an hour will help to reap long-term benefits for both physicians as individuals and to the patients who may benefit from them,” Dr. Floch said.

However, there are many ways health professionals can find themselves in hot water or posting something that may be deemed inappropriate. A study published online in BJU International this past May, found 40 percent of recent urology graduates had “unprofessional or potentially objectionable content” on their Facebook pages. Content included depictions of intoxication, uncensored profanity, disparagement of a colleague or place of work, and confidential patient information.

The American Medical Association (AMA) issued professional guidelines for social media use in 2010 to help physicians protect patient privacy and their own personal and professional reputations. Among its recommendations are for physicians to maintain appropriate professional boundaries and consider separating personal and professional content online and that “when physicians see content posted by colleagues that appears unprofessional they have a responsibility to bring that content to the attention of the individual, so that he or she can remove it and/or take other appropriate actions.”

Raul J. Rosenthal, MD, immediate past president of the ASMBS endorses the use of Twitter. “It’s an excellent social media tool. I believe that it is the best one for professionals. At Cleveland Clinic, all caregivers including our CEO use Twitter to communicate with each other and stay up to date with scientific news. Every ASMBS member should be on Twitter,” said Dr. Rosenthal, professor of surgery and chairman, department of general surgery, Cleveland Clinic Florida (@Rosenth36844698).

Recently, the ASMBS Integrated Health section launched its official Twitter account. Follow @ASMBSIH for updates from the IH leadership and participate in Tweet Chats about issues in obesity treatment. Connect with ASMBS on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn by clicking the images below: