Are Physicians Obligated to Participate in Social Media?

October 20, 2009

Online socialization is growing. Information is flowing faster than ever and the fastest flowing stuff relates to health. As the dissemination of health information via social platforms escalates, should physicians look more seriously at weighing in? Perhaps more importantly, do physicians have an ethical obligation to participate in health-related dialog?

Sounds crazy, I know. After all, physicians have always viewed the Internet as a place that nosy, hypochondriacs go to snoop around. “Go online at your own risk and be careful of chatrooms,” patients are told. Then they’re left alone at the edge of cyberspace.

Perhaps its time to change the mindset

I believe physicians and their organizations have an obligation to participate in online dialog. Sound reason, good clinical judgment, and evidence-based thinking need to be part of the information stream.

And doctors could change the way the world thinks if they would only get together. 60,000 is a number I reference when discussing physicians and social media. There are 60,000 members of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Every pediatrician fights vaccine misinformation, especially as they relate to autism. Consider the fact that the first two pages of a Google search for vaccines and autism are polluted with anti-vaccine propaganda driven by a loud, socially-savvy minority. If every AAP member wrote a myth-dispelling post concerning immunization just once a year, Google would be ruled by reason.

So what do physicians need to do?

Three steps for organized physician entrée into the social space:

  1. Presence. Physicians need to be present. Until physicians adopt some of the basic tools of online socialization this will never happen. To be present, organizations like the AMA, ACP and AAP need to create tracks at national meetings to educate physicians on the power and critical importance of social media.
  2. Organization. Unless we’re following one another or are connected under communities or networks our presence is irrelevant. While it’s been said that organizing doctors is like herding cats, social media breaks some of the traditional barriers to organization. It’s doable. It’s a way physicians can influence health behavior on a macro level.
  3. Motivation. Physicians need to be motivated to change health behavior, attitudes and beliefs. Even if we’re online and organized, without a passionate and persistent interest in setting story straight the message will never be heard.

Doctors need online socialization

Physicians may need social media more than patients do. In fact, social activity may be necessary to our professional survival. With the steady march towards participatory medicine physicians are slowly becoming marginalized. Complete disconnection from the conversation doesn’t help. It’s time for physicians to see themselves as the invested other half in participatory medicine.

The role of the physician in the 21st century will be defined by its role in the social health space. As they say in Washington DC, if you don’t show up at the table you’re likely to wind up on the menu. And so far zealots peddling misinformation are eatin’ us for lunch.


Mike Cadogan October 21, 2009 at 12:54 am

Thanks Dr V
Agree entirely.

Technophobic and filled with mistrust relating to the 'interweb thingy' physicians are stumbling awkwardly into the technological era. Like the patient suffering with Anton's syndrome we robustly walk forward into this brave new world with impervious denial emblazoned on our lofty banners.

It is about time we shed these shackles, joined forces and embraced technological advancement…

Vive la révolution October 21, 2009 at 7:29 am

I totally agree with the post. As the younger medical practioners enter practice, maybe some of these barriers will crumble. Young people are much more used to connecting through social media. The idea of associations hosting social media workshops at their annual meetings is indeed, intriguing.

Gregg Masters October 26, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Also agree Dr V. Way too many Mc Allen's out there; need more Mayo's, i.e., physician owned, and both clinically and financially integrated, at risk delivery platforms.

The only hope to contain the rapacious appetite of a volume incentivized delivery system, is by prudent, skin in the game docs who collaborate with their patients to make a difference.

Maybe social media will be the catalyst for the conversations that scale the silos and moats that keep these two parties from collaborating?

I applaud your courage and appreciate your voice – only physician early adopters and champions in the space can steward the needed transformation.

Dr. George October 28, 2009 at 11:50 am

I agree doctors need to have an online presence if they want to succeed today. If they don't have time or knowledge to handle social networking there are companies that will do it for them.

Eduardo Alvarado October 28, 2009 at 6:24 pm

I absolutely agree. If physicians know that Internet is full of low quality info, it would be so silly to close our eyes to this reality! Patients will not stop searching on Internet… Doctors do not have time for patient education… So the solution is Being an active player on social media

DrV October 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Dr George – Thanks for your comment. I have to say that I disagree with the outsourcing of social media to a third party. This is like hiring someone to go to a cocktail party on your behalf.

X- Generation Docs October 31, 2009 at 11:27 pm

With or without quality information, the misconceptions and miseducating websites would still be there. No point asking all doctors to interact via social network if that is the case. Social network and misleading sites are two different issues which may be misunderstood to be from the same source: Internet.

Perhaps one should understand that social network is something more akin to a telephone, and those webs with misleading info is more akin to a tabloid with sensational news. These two different media exist together but would never solve the problems faced here.

What is more important is for the physicians to recommend what web (even Wikipedia holds more truth than those bogus claims) should the patient refer and spend more time in educating the patient's misconception should it arises. Just creating a website or social media to disseminate knowledge as such does not serve any purpose to rectify the issue, but to create even more confusion. That is why there is a need for a personal touch from physicians in addressing such issue.

Writing an article or two a year in hope to "clean" the Internet of those junk information is not as easy as it is, and not an easy way out to replace the doctor's efforts to communicate with the patients. It might be easy to think that it works like an antibiotic on bacterial infection, but reality may not be as simple as it seems.

James Logan November 4, 2009 at 6:48 pm

There will always be misinformation out there. It's the price we pay for having free speech + the internet. And I think it's a fair price.

No matter what doctors say, or how well organized we are, there will always be patients who are either passively or willfully ignorant of the evidence. Even patients who are genuinely savy and open-minded may be confused by all the contradictory information they find.

That's why they need to see a doctor – to help them sort all this out. I don't think all the plethora of incorrect information one can find online in any way threatens our profession. If anything, it makes us more invaluable than ever before.

buy cheap viagra February 24, 2010 at 9:55 am

No, social media is just another way of take our money.

Stewart Gandolf March 1, 2010 at 10:44 am

This is a good post, and frankly, it surprised me.

When I first saw the title I thought, "This must be by another run-of-the-mill marketer trying to get business. I wonder if he even KNOWS any doctors."

To say that most doctors (especially PCPs) are insanely busy and disinterested in the Internet for all kinds of reasons (including liability) is an understatement.

I was very pleased to find it was not only written by a doctor, but the idea of using social media to combat disinformation is terrific.

This is a truly unique and noble vision about a complex subject.

BTW I will cover this post on my blog,, and will follow you on Twitter.

Nice meeting you.

Karen Rocks March 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I think this is good start and a positive article from a doctor that values social media as part of their overall marketing. Lately when talking with doctors they want to jump into social media, because being competitive by nature, they want to keep up with other doctors.

I like your three points. Slowly, the structures are starting to come into place that will support physician involvement in social media. But from what I have seen, the motivation needs to be there, and it needs to be more than the usual desire of using social media to "Get more patients".

miramar puntarenas lots costa rica March 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Hi!! its hard to be agree every have a different opinion the social media can be a great tool for education and networking, not only for patients but doctors alike. Although ethics can be questioned when the lines of doctor patient relationships are blurred, times are changing and a lot of people is using it
I hope it give us just good experiences

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