Catching the social media express

The medical profession must ensure it doesn’t get left behind when the social media train pulls out, says Dr Stacy Loeb, a urologist and prostate cancer researcher, who booked a seat in first class at the start.

Now ubiquitous, social media is a part of everyday life and is also used across a whole range of professions, including medicine. Dr Stacy Loeb believes its use is only going to grow. “I think it has a huge role these days. I really think this is the future,” she says. “The train has left the station. All of the medical societies are on social media. All of the major medical meetings have their own hashtags, Twitter feeds, all of these organisations have Facebook pages.”

The concept of Dr Google is now a familiar one, where patients race to the internet to ask a search engine what their symptoms may mean before even making an appointment to see a practitioner. But they also may be researching the practitioner, she says. And, accordingly, it’s important for medical professionals to ensure their virtual identity accurately represents them.

“As a physician, I think it’s important to take ownership of your digital identity,” says Loeb. “We have lots of physician rating sites on the internet and you can’t control everything that occurs there, but one thing you can do is claim your own social media profiles and keep the content updated. Things like having a LinkedIn profile, or a professional Facebook page – these rank very highly in search engines. So, when somebody looks you up, it’s good to have up-to-date content and accurate content available for people to look at.”

Patient research
In the world we live in, even medical practitioners have to be aware of their own ‘brand’ says Loeb and how they present themselves in the marketplace. They can also use their profiles as conduits to patient education and information. “There’s certainly more use of digital tools by patients so, again, if you want them to come to your clinic then it’s nice for you to have a digital profile and to really participate in patient education. We do have a mission as physicians to spread knowledge about health among the population, so these are very powerful platforms,” she says.

And it’s not just the patients who may browse your online presence. Keeping this information current is a good idea for a number of reasons, she says. “Networking with colleagues, recruitment of people for clinical trials, educating the public and patients, disseminating research findings… for many, many reasons I think it’s beneficial for physicians to get involved.

“Particularly, these tools are amazing to see thousands of people reading about your research on social media. Really, our ultimate goal in doing research should be for it to have an impact – so to actually be able to reach a very wide and global population through these networks is an incredible opportunity that we never had in the past.”

And it’s the global impact that is most important, believes Loeb. “I think it has made the world smaller. I think it’s powerful for physicians to be able to network with international key opinion leaders, and it’s powerful for patients to be able to communicate directly with international experts. These tools are really opening new doors.”

Brave new world
If we think we have connection saturation already, Loeb believes there is yet more to come.

“I think it definitely will be onwards and upwards,” she says. “We’re just becoming more and more connected. Which social media platforms are used, I think, will evolve over time, but I don’t think that social media as a whole is ever going to go away. For example, I think Instagram is something that has not been used as much in medicine yet, but it is a really rapidly growing platform in the world as a whole and particularly among younger people. So, therefore, I suspect it will grow in medicine in the future.

“All of the different things we can do with this may just change a bit over time, but as a whole, it’s not going away and the sooner that physicians understand these platforms and take ownership of their own digital identity, the better.”

It will come as little surprise to anyone that there is a generational factor in all of this, with younger practitioners, who may well be ‘digital natives’ and have grown up in a continually connected world, more comfortable with social media than their more senior colleagues.

“This is definitely the case,” says Loeb. “We have done surveys in the American Urological Association of the members and, certainly, younger members are more likely to use social media. So that’s definitely being shown statistically and is not surprising that people who grew up with more of these platforms in their life are more likely to continue using them throughout their career.

“I’ve been really amazed to see the adoption of many of these platforms, however, even by some older physicians in the field, simply because they really want to see what discussions are happening and they recognise the real power that these tools can have.” There are good reasons for the more experienced members of the profession to get on-board, she says, and it’s relatively easy for them to do so, if they’re open to the idea.

“To be a physician is very hard, it requires a lot of knowledge and skill!” she adds.

“Social media platforms are purposefully built for general use, so not for physicians to feel that it’s too daunting to learn. I think that a smart physician, if they really care and are dedicated to it, can pick up the basic use of these tools in, let’s say, 30 minutes or 60 minutes and that it’s well worth the effort.”

Dr Stacy Loeb is a urologist and prostate cancer researcher at New York University, Langone Medical Centre in New York City, US.

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