Commentary - November 2009
By Travis G. Bias, DO
Whether you are ready or not, it's time to make your presence known on the Internet. I'm not talking about registering for an e-mail address through your local cable company or searching for directions on Google every now and then. I'm talking about social networking.
You've heard of Facebook, and you've laughed at Twitter. You thought these were just for your kids or for your younger patients who seem glued to their phones while in your waiting room. Wrong! Currently, there are more than 250 million Facebook users, and at least 120 million of them log on at least once a day. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is composed of those over 35. Facebook is presented in more than 50 languages, and more than 65 million users have Facebook beamed straight to their cell phones. Never has there been a better time for you to build your e-presence - and it starts with the basics.
With the Internet being easier to use than ever, it's time to set up your profile. Facebook and Twitter, just a couple of the more popular examples, are easy avenues to use to begin your online social networking.
On Facebook, you may put in biographical stats, where you attended undergraduate and medical school, and the hospital and specialties in which you trained. You may even upload photographic evidence of those glory days. Privacy settings allow you to specify which individuals can see this information. People will be able to search for your name on Facebook and request that you be "friends" - this will grant them access to your page and information. And, you can do the reverse, building your list of contacts without even using a street address or home telephone number.
Twitter is a bare-bones version of this. You can establish "contacts," but the primary goal of this outlet is to put interesting links or just your thought-of-the-moment on health care reform, for example, for all of your "followers" to read.
Never before has social networking been so relevant. Have you ever wished you could simply send a message to all the patients in your practice with just one click of the "send" button? Have you had any ideas about the recent health care reform debate that you wish you could share with whoever was interested?
With 24-hour news channels constantly reporting and up-to-the-second information available on the Internet from anywhere around the world, we are inspired to search for our own method of disseminating information. In addition, while we like to think of physicians as among the leaders of the health care team, it is time for us to use the outlets available to us to broadcast our ideas - at the exact time they arise. It doesn't matter if we have the best, most creative solutions if we don't make them known, and it would be unfortunate if those less well-informed or those self-interested were to have a more powerful voice simply because they have a Twitter account.
With Facebook and Twitter, you can display messages for any of your "friends" to read. You can share links to articles. You can share links to your favorite "causes," like the Texas Medical Association's " Fix What's Wrong; Keep What's Good " campaign.
Additionally, for a bigger presence, you can use these avenues to establish a blog presence, and when a health care myth is broadcast on national television, you, as a practicing physician, can dispel that myth to hundreds of your "contacts."
When your political opponent attacks you or your candidate with some misinformation, you can counter the attack with the truth -- instantly. Physicians are more involved in the political process than ever before, and social networking is simply the next important tool to add to the politically engaged doctor's black bag.
The generation in medical school and residency uses these outlets to stay in touch with friends. You meet a colleague at an AMA meeting, then become official "friends" on Facebook and immediately begin to foster that connection.
One of my Little League teammates recently asked me to be his "friend" on Facebook, and not only can I see his current occupation, but I have been able to view several photos of his family. I recently traveled out of the country and uploaded pictures from my vacation onto Facebook upon my return. In fact, my family saw my pictures on Facebook before we saw each other in person.
The generation of physicians nearing retirement age had no choice but to write and mail letters and to place phone calls from landlines. Now, we all rely on e-mail. Residents and medical students now send Facebook messages. We even send quick Facebook comments during rounds.
Some physicians even use social networking sites to communicate with their patients.
Elizabeth Cohen's Sept. 3 article " Should You 'Friend' Your Doctor on Facebook? " on the CNNWeb site highlights a few key points when it comes to using this method of communication with your patients. This modality is not for diagnosis, but rather for prescription refills and public health announcements. When Michael Jackson died from the "sleeping medication" propofol, you could have educated your community via your Twitter page, rather than fielding phone calls during your clinic time.
This form of communication between you and patients and even employees is not for everyone or for every type of message. Not every patient will be available on Facebook or Twitter, so traditional means of communication are still necessary. Plus, maintaining professional boundaries is important.
In Ms. Cohen's article, she mentions a resident who was hesitant to accept a friend request from a patient whose baby she delivered. This is for each physician to decide. I personally have not become friends with a patient yet, and I am reluctant to accept requests from even the staff at my residency clinic. You can either approve or deny each "friend request," so you control who views your page. Some physicians have created their personal page and a separate account for their business entity. This may help from violating those aforementioned boundaries.
Now is the time. If you haven't already become part of the online social networking community, go home tonight, go to Facebook.com and/or Twitter.com , and establish your account. Play around with each. See what others are doing via social networking, make your presence known, and add your voice to the debate. If you have trouble, ask a medical student or resident at the TMA Winter Conference, and you will be up and running in no time. Of course, once you are on there, search for Travis Bias and request to be my "friend," so I can continue to build my network and learn from your input. I'll look forward to hearing from you.
Dr. Bias is a second-year resident in family medicine at the Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program in Sugar Land and the Resident and Fellow Section representative on the TMA Foundation Board of Trustees. He also is a vice chair on the Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee Board of Directors and an at-large member on the executive committee of the TMA Resident and Fellow Section.