Recently a contentious public exchange over the diagnosis and management of surgical condition lead a young physician to leave Twitter. For some, watching this doctor virtually vaporize was the equivalent of losing a colleague. This is because our social networks have become important sources of support, information, inspiration and fellowship. The situation raises questions about how doctors learn about social media. Or perhaps what we need to teach.
While we can debate the cause of the crisis, it came down to a misunderstanding of the limits of Twitter — a tool that buckles under the weight of nuanced dialog and debate. A failure of respectful, civil engagement was also a factor.
Doctors aren’t prepared for networked communication
Like a surgical resident learning to close a wound, understanding how we work in a complex communication environment is a process for both learner and teacher. Despite this reality we do little to prepare doctors to function as professionals in this new environment. For trainees this preparation is often nothing more than a curriculum placeholder. Few organizations train mid-career professionals and educators how to respond to colleagues and trainees when a public exchange takes a wrong turn.
From the limits of short-format communication to digital conflict of interest, there’s lots to figure out when it comes to social media as a doctor. We’re good with the ‘hard sell’ presentation that pushes doctors to ‘get on social media.’ But there are fewer resources available to help handle the subtleties and pitfalls that may occur.
We believe that our voices have no limit
Understanding how we publicly position our opinions and engage with others is key to our professional success. And no one arrives to medicine with an understanding of how to do this. Digital natives accustomed to a social dialog need to understand that engaging as a college student is different than engaging as a doctor. Mid-career digital immigrants have a different but equally challenging path.
The conversation about restraint or ‘rules’ is one that many physicians don’t like to have. It runs counter to the libertarian spirit of the medicine’s growing online culture. Because for many, our public voice is the last remaining thing that we truly own as physicians. We want to preserve the voice that defines us.
But we must find balance.
The tension between the individual and responsibility to community
The tension between individual expression and responsibility to community represents one of the core challenges of the public physician. And the measure of this means something very different depending on an individual’s public purpose, specialty, employment, and world view. This balance needs to be managed carefully and intentionally. And ultimately we all have to get a along and respect one another’s differences.
As institutions we have a responsibility to rethink how doctors learn about social media. Conversations about how we approach differences and debate in a network setting need to be part of every medical undergraduate, graduate, and continuing medical education program.￼
As a means of helping doctors figure all this stuff out I started The Public Physician, an online resource for doctors, students and institutions. Check it out. Also, I regularly deliver The Public Physician Workshop at hospitals and medical schools throughout the U.S. Please let me know if you would like to talk. Reach me at email@example.com
If you liked How Doctors Learn About Social Media you might like the 33 charts Digital Professionalism Archives. It’s a collection of everything written here on digital professionalism. In fact, every post has tags way at the bottom (look) that will bring you to related material.