Human beings are a little weird about their health and in many ways digital technology has made us even weirder. Google has made me a minor hypochondriac – more than once I’ve diagnosed myself with a life-threatening disease in five clicks or less. Thanks to Google Images, it’s possible to view real pictures and videos of everything from childbirth and sneezing (so gross – Google it), to maggot therapy.
But beyond the weirdness, this technology has empowered us to take control of and play an active role in our health. There are countless apps that allow us to monitor and measure our health in real-time. From arthritis and asthma to gastrointestinal problems and high blood pressure, there’s an app for that. In fact, the health and fitness category in the App Store features 250 different apps.
Online message boards and support communities exist for diabetes sufferers and those affected by cancer. Sites like Ratemds.com allow us to publicly comment on the experiences we’ve had with our doctors.
These are just a few of the ways digital media has changed our relationship with our health and our roles as patients. But what does this mean for the medical community? How are Canadian doctors being impacted by the rise in popularity of digital media?
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) produces a publication called Future Practice that explores the ways digital media is changing the health field in Canada. A feature from the November 2011 issue, entitled Ahead of the Curve: How social media are changing the way Canadian doctors practice, offers interesting insight into this topic.
The digital MD
The medical field, much like the legal field, has a number of realistic reasons to be cautious and even leery of social media. Patient privacy is top priority and there are very serious repercussions for the careless use of confidential information. It would be easy to use this reasoning to completely shut down the social media and health care debate but the CMA publication does just the opposite – making the case that social media has its place in the health field, if it’s done carefully. A number of reasons for this position are given, including:
The rise of the e-patient
Patients are increasingly going online to find answers to medical questions. The only way to ensure they’re receiving correct information is for medical professionals to contribute to the conversation. One way the medical field has responded to this need is with the Vancouver-based site, Healthism. Developed by a physician, this interactive site provides personalized and reliable health information.
Patients want to get health info on social networking sites too. The CMA feature cites a study conducted in the Netherlands that made the case for Twitter as an effective primary care tool. The study showed that many patients would like to use Twitter to ask specific medical questions. Most respondents said they’d use Twitter to ask for advice, seek reassurance and for triage purposes (should I go to the doctor).
And since it’s possible to turn to YouTube for a video that provides step-by-step instructions on how to do pretty much anything, it follows that you should also be able to access a video that lays out every detail of the intimidating medical procedure you’re about to undergo.
Doctors have digital footprints just like the rest of us
Just like everyone else, doctors need to be aware of their digital footprint. Every day patients are reviewing the timeliness, bedside manners and listening skills of their doctors online – information many are too shy to share with their doctor directly. This is valuable information that can really impact a doctor’s career. One of the contributors to the CMA feature cited a real-life example where a patient used her phone to videotape herself running through the names of the doctors and nurses who had provided her with good care and bad, then uploaded it to YouTube, all from her hospital bed.
Med students are digital media savvy
Today’s med students grew up online. They have Facebook and Twitter pages and they’re extremely comfortable having conversations and even learning online. This is a reality the medical field can’t ignore. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the growing shortage of doctors in Canada and making the health industry digital friendly will go a long way in inspiring young people to go to medical school.
Naheed Dosani, a medical resident in Toronto and member of the digital generation, is very active on Twitter (@NaheedD) and authors a blog called Healthy Debate that focuses on providing unbiased information about health care in Ontario. In the CMA feature, Dosani cites a life-long desire to learn as one of the main reasons he’s embraced social media. He joined Twitter as a medical student, using the site to connect with other med students, residents and other health care professionals for information and as a means of accessing current medical articles and studies. He also actively uses social media as a tool for advocating for health-related causes he strongly believes in.
Doctors are humans too
Doctors are professionals and behave accordingly during their interactions with patients. When we’re under their care, sometimes quite ill or uncomfortable, it’s tough to look beyond the lab coat to the human wearing it. But that’s exactly what doctors are: humans trying to be the best they can in their jobs and in their lives. They have personal opinions, want to advocate for certain causes and look for ways to decompress after a stressful day. As the CMA feature points out, digital media acts as an outlet for all of these things.
Jessica Otte is a doctor in Nunavut. She’s active on Twitter (@DrOttematic) and authors her own blog, which she describes as a space where she can broadcast her experiences as a doctor. She’s used the blog to describe things like the first time she had to tell a patient they were dying. Otte says writing down these experiences helps her decompress and ensures she stays connected with her humanity.
Social media and health care hashtag
Social media experts and enthusiasts (and writers of digital literacy blogs) are not the only ones interested in the impact social media is having on health care. Every Sunday, members of the health care community, including doctors, patients, lawyers and communicators participate in the Health Care Communications and Social Media Chat on Twitter using the hashtag #hcsm.
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