Are Physicians Obligated to Participate in Social Media?


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.