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Doctors tell how they use social media as professional watercooler

A survey describes how physicians check sites to filter information and gauge what developments are the most meaningful.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Oct. 22, 2012

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David May, MD, describes Twitter as a doctors’ lounge. When he wants to discuss the latest journal articles or clinical research, there are always other doctors on hand to offer their opinions and add to the discussion. But unlike a doctors’ lounge, the discussion isn’t limited to colleagues down the hospital corridor. It can include thousands of people from around the world.

“The social media world is such an intense, immediately responsive place that you can have tremendous amounts of traffic pointing out the good and bad about an article itself technically, about the concepts that were put forward, and about potential flaws that were in a paper,” said Dr. May, a cardiologist from Lewisville, Texas.

Like Dr. May, many physicians have turned to social media to help them manage the overwhelming amount of new information they need to know to provide quality care.

A study published online Sept. 24 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 85% of oncologists and primary care physicians use social media at least once a week or once a day to scan or explore health information. Sixty percent said social media improves the care they deliver. The results were based on 485 responses researchers received out of 1,685 surveys that were emailed at random to practicing oncologists and primary care physicians.

Unlike other studies on physician use of social media that tend to lump professional and personal use together, lead author Brian McGowan, PhD, an education technology consultant from Blue Bell, Pa., and his fellow researchers narrowed the focus to how social media can be used for professional development and lifelong learning.

Of the physicians surveyed, 24.1% said they use social media daily to scan or explore new medical information, and 14.2% contribute information daily. On a weekly basis, 61% scanned and explored and 46% contributed information. Fifty-eight percent perceive social media to be beneficial and a good way to get current, high-quality information.

Although social media avenues come with a lot of noise that some have a hard time filtering, Robert S. Miller, MD, physician adviser of oncology medical informatics at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he has found them useful, because the information he receives is from a select number of users he considers good sources of information.

Dr. Miller, a study co-author, said he has been communicating on Twitter for several years with people with whom he shares similar interests. He knows that if he sees multiple references to the same study or story, it’s something that he should check out. He said it also has led to professional relationships with people he never would have met outside the virtual world.

Social media never will replace traditional means of research and learning. But Dr. Miller said it’s an additional — and valuable — channel that can add to a physician’s knowledge base.

Closed vs. open communities

Physicians are congregating at various social media sites. Many surveyed for the study say they prefer social networks that are closed communities of physicians. McGowan said he was not surprised by this, because participating in closed environments seems safer than public forums such as Twitter and Facebook.

However, Bryan Vartabedian, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said physicians who limit themselves to closed networks are missing some of social media’s benefits.

“Democratizing media has completely opened my eyes to the experience of the patient,” said Dr. Vartabedian, a co-author of the study. He said his social media connections with patient advocacy groups have given him “a huge appreciation for how they think.”

Dr. Vartabedian said the number of physicians willing to go beyond closed networks is starting to grow, from what he has seen. When he started using Twitter in 2008, he could count with one hand the doctors who use the site; before long, he lost count.

McGowan said the attention to the dangers of social media and the widespread circulation of a few horror stories have prevented many from embracing it. He said 20% of physicians think using social media sites is a bad idea, about 30% think it’s great, “then you have 50% in the movable middle.” McGowan said those 50% could move toward social media if more studies highlight its positive side.

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External links

“Understanding the factors that influence the adoption and meaningful use of social media by physicians to share medical information,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, published online Sept. 24 (link)

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