Should Physicians Educate Patients via Social Media?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


September 21, 2017

Hi. I'm Art Caplan, from the Division of Medical Ethics at the School of Medicine at NYU.

Many doctors ask me, what am I going to do when my patient comes in and bothers me, either because something was advertised on TV (direct-to-consumer ads) that they're now demanding they get—or worse, they become an expert on whatever their medical problem is by surfing the Internet? I have to deal with all kinds of crazy theories, alternative medicines, Goop pronouncements from celebrities, and on and on it goes. How am I supposed to manage this?

I think part of the problem is us. We in medicine, we in science, don't do enough to educate the public. We don't do enough to teach ourselves how to do that well, how to do it better. The Internet is full of nonsense, hype, clickbait, and ridiculous information about all kinds of health and medical elixirs and remedies that have no basis in fact. If you think about it, how often do you actually see a doctor, an established scientist out there, trying to correct or engage the public with scientific, verified, evidence-based information?

I'll answer that: Not enough. I think people get nervous, or they say, I don't have time, or I was never trained to do it, or I'm not comfortable doing it. We've got to start doing it. We're not going to win the battle of the Internet by staying off of it. I don't think we're going to win battles fueled by television marketing by not trying to be ready to respond when people come in the door.

What to do? Well, I think there are a couple of steps. First, speak up in the community. People want to hear what doctors think. They particularly want to hear what doctors they know think. If you can talk at church, at synagogue, at high school, at the Kiwanis, at the Rotary, do it. I think doing that once or twice a year really gives you an opportunity to reach out and put your best foot forward and medicine's, health's, and science's best foot forward in the community. After all, that's where these battles are ultimately won.

Second, don't be afraid to blog. Don't be afraid to chime in on the Internet. Don't be afraid to set up your own page. In this electronic age, being able to point to your website and say, look, for your arthritis, your lupus, your migraines, whatever, I've built a page. It's got all of the legitimate and best sources on it. Don't pay attention to that other stuff. Check out what I've listed for you to browse. That is a big help to patients.

Third, hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice should work with their doctors to try and build these social media sites. Let's see more people out there on the local radio. Let's hear from folks in terms of giving them an opportunity to do an op-ed for the local paper or social media site. Communication is a big part of our responsibility in talking with the public. I think doctors and scientists, to be regarded as professionals, really should take on the duty of trying to be an antidote to what is often nonsense, or worse than nonsense, in the social media world.

I'm Art Caplan. Thanks for watching.

Talking Points: Should Physicians Educate Patients via Social Media?

Issues to consider:

  • In a 2010 study of 921 health-related blogs, 43% of bloggers were physicians. Physician-bloggers have used social media to share health information, network with colleagues, disseminate research, market their practice, and engage in health advocacy. However, few healthcare providers have engaged with their patients online, and some are hesitant about interacting with patients online because the boundaries aren't clear.[1]

  • In a 2008 study which analyzed the content of 271 weblogs written by health professionals, researchers found that weblogs offered the opportunity to share narratives, but also risked revealing confidential patient information or reflecting poorly on the author or profession.[1]

  • National medical organizations have published social media guidelines; however, these guidelines often lack specific behavioral guidance or definitions of professionalism.[1]

  • A survey of more than 4000 physicians conducted by the social media site QuantiaMD found that more than 90% of physicians use some form of social media for personal activities, whereas only 65% use these sites for professional reasons.[2]

  • In the same study cited above, nearly one third of physicians reported participating in social networks. Both personal and professional use of social media by physicians is increasing, the study found.[2]


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