Should Your Doctor be Your Facebook Friend?

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by Briana Campbell (@MsMatchGirl)

Many doctors are expanding their use of social media, but is it what patients want? Theres no arguing that patients are going online to seek health-related information, but when they have a concern, a visit to the doctor still trumps online research and interactions. Pew Research Centers The Social Life of Health Information, 2011 report found that 70 percent of people seek the advice of a medical professional when they want information or need to address a health issue.

Social media allows doctors to connect and communicate with patients beyond the exam room, but when it comes to care, its the face-to-face relationship that delivers real value. More doctors are using social media to disseminate information, promote events on health issues and help patients feel connected to doctors and hospitals — but social media has its limits.

For one thing, because of its public nature, privacy is a big concern when communicating on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or other social sites. Medical practitioners need to proceed with particular caution to protect patient privacy and ensure compliance with HIPAA. They also need to be mindful of appropriate patient-practitioner relationship boundaries. Theres also a matter of personal branding: Does anyone really need to see their doctor sipping sangria in Tommy Bahama shorts when hes not in the office?

While doctors can share information, such as the best way to stay protected during cold and flu season or use technology to schedule appointments, they cant diagnose, treat or prescribe prescriptions online. To get care, patients still have to go to the office.

Social media is also time-consuming. If a doctor cannot provide service and care online, shouldnt he or she be using that time to learn the newest treatment therapies and techniques? Additionally, spending time updating statuses or retweeting health links is time taken away from patients. Doctors today are already spending less time with patients and social media may be more of a distraction than an added benefit.

Theres also something to be said for the value of human interaction with a doctor. While cell phone texting is the preferred mode of communication for children and teens, theyre not so quick to message their professional care giver. Instead, theyre more likely to talk to their parents, who want to watch the doctors body language, ask questions as new information is presented or get reassurance that the road to recovery will end positively.

Social media has its value in medicine. Information on diet and nutrition, lifestyle choices and treatment therapies abound and are helpful in helping patients make informed choices, but it has limited value for day-to-day care. Doctors using social tools may be able to establish themselves as a thought leader or put some personality behind their profession, but when patients want answers and assurance that theyve made the best decisions in choosing their medical care, nothing can take the place of those six magic words: the doctor will see you now.

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