Health care and social media: educating the digital patient

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Social media has become prolific in everyday life and allows the instantaneous sharing of information, which can include health care information. The authors of a Research Note published on F1000Research suggests as medical vocabulary becomes more prevalent on social media that more comprehensible language should be used. In this guest blog, Farris Timimi, cardiologist, Medical Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network and well-known health care Twitter user gives his view on this.

Health care literacy continues to be a challenge. We all recognize the impact of literacy on quality outcomes, ranging from accessing health care, understanding the risk and benefits of tests and treatment to complying with medical advice. Health literacy can include a variety of things, including cultural, visual, computer and information comprehension; however, often not understanding the written information may be the most important and may have the greatest impact on health related outcomes.

Literacy and social media

The authors of this Research Note have demonstrated the potential application of social media, to serve as an aid to standard educational material. In particular, as the form of communication in Twitter is uniquely brief, it may foster a lower readability score than standard health care educational material. While this observation is interesting, health care barriers surrounding social media, reflecting fear of social media use in health care continues to be a challenge that limits the application and innovation of this technology.

It is the fear of these perceived barriers that prevents the full use of social media by health care professionals. These include fear of social disinhibition, reimbursement and compliance with privacy laws (e.g., HIPAA in the Unites States, Directive on Data Protection in the EU); yet the most powerful fear is that of unprofessional interactions online. While these imagined fears are greater than actual transgressions, we have found there are three interventions that need be put in place to address these concerns: clear guidelines, orientation and onboarding for new employees and meaningful social media training.

Social networks as tools

We recognize how much time is spent in social networks by our patients. Our co-workers and employees invest similar time in the same networks. Consider our capacity for engagement in healthcare, if we can strategically align both groups. To do so we need to view social networks as tools rather than toys, and ensure that our employees apply them professionally.

Our approach at Mayo Clinic has centered on the latter, with the development of a CME-certified training module for health care professionals focusing on social media, both the pragmatic application and professionalism in use.

It is critical that we in health care view social networks and social media as an additional resource in medicine rather than a risk we need to mitigate. Only by doing so, we can move from observation to intervention, a direction outlined by Hoedebecke et al in their article.

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