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  • Inderjit Sood

How social media is a prescription for healthcare

Patient education via social media is a coming-of-age promise for healthcare, but do medical professionals effectively use it? What sticks, and what is fake?

“I’m calling on the educators and students in the health profession,” said Dr. Remo Aguilar, an orthopedic surgeon and medical blogger in Southern Mindanao, the Philippines, during an online chat. “How do we go about using social media as a tool for patient education?”

He wondered what characterizes a typical health learner who prefers to use social media as a tool for learning.

Such a person well versed on social media might spend more time online than in other pursuits. The internet is where a lot of people pick up information — for better or worse.

“Exactly,” Aguilar said. “This is the set of learners more attuned to social media as an educational tool. It’s a question of a patient’s immediacy of health needs or information. This has bearing on our messaging.”

Ourlad Tantengco, a medical student in the Philippines, said, “For us medical students, we spend more time on social media because even group work and meetings happen online.

“We need more collaboration with mass communication and communication resident colleagues,” Tantengco said. “They can definitely help health professionals with social media engagements. Collaborating with other disciplines is something to look forward to.”

Doctor turned patient

Dr. Gia Sison brings the perspective of doctor and patient.

“Patients online would like to access more information on how they’re feeling or the diagnosis that was given to them,” said the doctor who specializes in occupational medicine in the Philippines. “I found personal blogs on breast cancer very helpful even as an MD when I was diagnosed.”

The group talked about which teaching and learning strategy that uses social media is most apt for a typical health learner. The most important first step is to know where your audience is. If mostly on Facebook, be active there. The same applies to Twitter or other channels. You won’t know for sure where your audience is active unless you ask them. Don’t assume.

“For health education, it’s better to use video or Facebook Live. It’s easier to explain that way rather than in just plain text,” Tantengco said. “There are also group discussions or tweet chats. I have a larger audience on Facebook, so I spend more time and post more articles there than on Twitter.

“Facebook Insights is very helpful,” he added. “I use it to monitor my largest audience, and I post more topics to capture more of those audiences.”

Sison leans the other way.

“I find Twitter effective,” she said. She also does video blogging. “Vlogging — aside from blogging — also puts a more personal touch on a heavily academic topic.”

Privacy factor

Yinka Vidal added a word of caution about using social media for education. He has 40 years’ experience as a healthcare professional, lecturer and clinical researcher in Missouri. He pointed to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

“In the U.S., we have to be careful about HIPAA to protect patient confidentiality,” he said. “Violation of this can get a healthcare provider in serious trouble.”

Aguilar noted that one consideration for effective social media use as an educational tool is the presence of a large number of followers. “They can broadcast info across networks and sustain a message,” he said.

That also comes with potential drawbacks. Many followers are fine if legitimate. However, a social media scandal today involves influencers in sports, show business and news media who bought fake followers by the thousands to justify influence. So, large numbers of followers don’t necessarily translate to effective communication.

The group also discussed health teaching strategies using social media that they have applied to their practice.

“Infographics offer great analogies to show the disease process,” Tantengco said. “We need to use props like these in health video blogs. Let us educate to help our patients empower themselves, not educate to be more popular and get more patients.”

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