Rheumatology Practice Management
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Social Media in Healthcare: How to Dispel Misinformation

Over the past few decades, individuals have been increasingly turning to social media to seek and share health information. These platforms have gained wider popularity among consumers from all social groups, regardless of gender or age. Healthcare professionals and institutions are also using social media with greater frequency to disseminate important news and updates regarding disease prevention, medical breakthroughs, and the latest results from recent clinical studies. Although this practice represents an unprecedented opportunity to increase health literacy and improve adherence to therapy among various populations of patients, it has also opened the door to new risks and challenges due to false or misleading information that may spread quickly across the internet.

Rheumatology Practice Management (RPM) recently spoke to Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, Director of the Endoscopic Bariatric Program and Chief Medical Social Media Officer at Jefferson Health, Philadelphia, PA; Chief Medical Officer of Medtronic’s Gastrointestinal Business; and Founding President of the Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM).

RPM: Can you tell us about your role as Chief Medical Social Media Officer at Jefferson Health?

Dr Chiang: In my role at Jefferson Health, I work to educate my healthcare colleagues on the risks and benefits of having a professional social media presence and help them to effectively and responsibly cultivate a social media following. I also help out with social media campaigns and assist in shaping the social media policy at our institution.

RPM: What was your motivation for creating the AHSM and what is the ongoing vision for the organization?

Dr Chiang: The initial motivation was driven by the presence of medical misinformation online and a desire to better define a set of best practices for professional social media use among healthcare providers. However, over time, we have shifted our focus to being more of a resource-based organization. Our primary focus is now on providing guidance to healthcare professionals regarding the best way how to approach social media and equipping them with the tools they need to get on social media platforms more easily. This can result in more accurate medical voices online.

The founders of AHSM are all experienced in social media and have galvanized entire communities—sometimes on the order of millions of followers. Another goal is to have an entity for communicating with institutions and organizations within the healthcare industry, given the fact that so many are often resistant to social media use by their employees.

We have worked directly with several social media platforms to create educational programs that explain how to use these platforms and how to create better content. For example, YouTube recently featured a didactic on how to create a makeshift home studio with better lighting and sound. We have also partnered with Cochrane to offer healthcare social media research grants. In addition, last year we had our 1st annual meeting, which included 2 days’ worth of lectures as well as an abstract submission process.

RPM: What are the most troubling trends right now regarding social media in healthcare?

Dr Chiang: Health misinformation and disinformation remain the greatest issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed social media platforms to reconsider how impactful health misinformation can be for public health efforts. Even among trained individuals, there are inherent limitations to social media communication. Explaining complex medical concepts concisely is not easy, and this sort of communication is not taught during medical training. One of the things that the healthcare industry can do is better prepare our future practitioners by providing formal training in social media skills, which can be incorporated into the curriculum of medical, nursing, or other professional schools.

RPM: What are the biggest concerns of healthcare professionals who may be reluctant to engage in social media and what advice can you offer them?

Dr Chiang: There are many unanticipated consequences of having a public social media presence. I think most individuals are worried about having something misconstrued or doing something wrong that could potentially have negative professional consequences. I would always suggest to healthcare providers that they read their employer’s social media policy and connect with any existing institutional media relations teams, especially if they work in a hospital system.

There are other challenges that can be tricky as well, such as how to approach sponsored content or navigate cancel culture. This is exactly why AHSM was formed—to provide forums where professionals can discuss these issues and learn how to handle them.

RPM: What are some additional strategies that providers can use to increase the integrity of online information?

Dr Chiang: I think citing primary sources and including trained experts, especially when making health claims, is really important. I also think there should be a frequent dialogue between individuals managing the social media accounts and clinicians to ensure that integrity of the information remains intact. Capitalizing on relevant news stories or engaging at pre-determined times that coincide with society events or large conferences can be helpful for dissemination as well.

Healthcare professionals can learn more about AHSM by going to www.ahsm.org.

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