Guest Article: Safe Social Networking is Good for Patients

March 14, 2011
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Patricia Walling, a graduate student working who has both professional and volunteer experience in a hospital environment, reached out to me via e-mail recently about some of her ideas of how physicians can communicate with their patients through social networking. I liked her ideas and invited her to put together an guest posting on the subject. Most healthcare professionals are already busy doing a hundred things a day and connecting to patients via social networks is probably the last thing on their minds; however, if patients are online they may have no choice but to meet them on the sites they frequent. Not everyone wants to connect to their patients on social networks, but here’s what Patricia advises for physicians and health professionals that can afford the time and resources it takes to connect:

 It’s obvious now that a growing number of people (patients and family members alike) are turning to online resources to diagnose their medical problems. Most doctors understand that patients use the Internet to access health information rather than visiting their doctor first. While the Internet and social networks provide quick and easy access to health information (you won’t even need a degree in medical transcription to understand most terms), it is also important to remember that oftentimes much of the information found online is erroneous or can easily be misunderstood. Thus, it may be a good idea to connect to patients directly, rather than risk having them resort to sites like Facebook for their medical decisions and ensure that they are using reputable resources.

Have a Separate Account for Patients
Most social networking sites don’t limit the number of accounts you can create. As such, you should start a separate account for your professional agenda. Patients will appreciate being added and, given the ease of contact, will be more likely to come to you with questions. Since most people check their account regularly, they’ll be less likely to go out of their way to find advice when you can have a solution there waiting for them.

Respond Quickly to Your Contacts
Keeping your patients informed and maintaining regular contact will encourage them not only to come to you first for medical advice, but also to engage with you more often and remember appointments. The half-hour or so a day that you dedicate to maintaining your contacts will do wonders for your ability to help your patients. As they say: out of sight, out of mind.

Be a Part of Your Patient’s Search
Among the many self-styled experts on the Web, some are far more credible than others—especially when it comes to medical information. However, you need not discourage your patients from looking through online health resources if you integrate yourself into their search. This way you can encourage your patients to feel more in charge of their healthcare while at the same time discouraging them from relying on online advice. Not only will this improve your relationship with your patient, but it will also give you insight into your patients’ thought process and better allow you to protect them against poor medical advice.

Be Available for Consultation
Patients should never act on any information until they’ve spoken with you about what they’ve learned. However, patients who are desperate for help may act rashly if they think there is no other option. Be sure to remind your patients often that they can always contact you about any medical issue, and try to respond quickly if you are contacted. If you can, give them a time of day when you are online in case they need person-to-person communication. By being reliable, you can keep your patients better informed and safer from their own devices.

Make Sure They Know You Know Them Best
As your patient’s doctor, you should make it clear that you are much more familiar with their case than someone who’s just an Internet contact. When they get advice from an expert through social media, they should avoid thinking about it as an idea that competes with your opinion, but rather consider it a suggestion that could be useful to them. It could be that what they learned online doesn’t apply to their case, which you should help them understand.
Ultimately getting health information from online sources and social networks isn’t bad. You can provide a wonderful service to your patients, just as they can potentially learn a great deal about their own case. However, this should be balanced by your counsel. Keep involved in their case as they explore it, and respond dutifully to their queries. Online communication can’t replace an exam, but it can help prevent a lot of harm.

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