Posted in #HCSM

The Power of Social Media in Medicine and Medical Education: Opportunities, Risks, and Rewards

Earlier this year I contributed to a paper published in the journal, Clinical Chemistry, which explored the use of social media in medicine and medical education. You can read the full paper here –  it’s Open Access (yay!).

Both personal and professional use of social media by medical professionals is increasing. Some medical specialties have quickly adopted and embraced social media, particularly in the fields of family medicine, pediatrics, and emergency medicine.  Emergency and critical care medicine have embraced social media under the free open-access medical education (#FOAMEd) movement that seeks to share knowledge as widely as possible and for free. (Fun fact! The term FOAM was coined in June 2012 in a pub in Dublin, over a pint of Guinness).

Extracted highlights from the paper

Shannon Haymond, Professor of Pathology, sees social media as “a way to stay up to
date on rapidly changing fields and to connect with a diverse set of people who share your interests. This is particularly true for finding those interested in your area
of expertise but from a completely different perspective.”

I continually use social media to find and save ideas for improving the content and delivery of my lectures and educational sessions – Shannon Haymond

In response to the question of barriers to the adoption of social media among medical professionals, Haymond points to lack of time to tackle a steep learning  curve and notes “people are not sure of the value or level of professionalism (i.e., they assume it is all about pop culture and celebrity feuds) and  may be apprehensive to put their opinions out into the public conversation.”

Emergency medicine consultant, Professor Simon Carley considers that emergency medicine has adopted social media at a much faster pace than most specialties “owing to the ability of social media to engage individuals across the breadth of our specialty, despite the chronological and geographical challenges that typify our practice.”

I am more up to date than my peers who do not engage. I am a better physician as a result, and I truly believe that my patients receive better care because of this. Professionally I find it intellectually satisfying, as I am forced to constantly learn and reflect on my current practice. It has created opportunities to join research and educational groups across the globe with interactions through #FOAMed, leading to journal publications and numerous invitations to speak at national and international conferences. My personal learning network of experts is no longer limited to those in my department or hospital, and I regularly learn from those in other countries and health economies – Simon Carley

Although Carley thinks there still exists “a big gap between awareness and involvement”, clinical educator, Jonathan Sherbino, MD says “the novelty of social media as an emerging phenomenon is being replaced with lines of inquiry that take advantage of the principles of social media: open access, interconnectivity, asynchronous dialog, and crowdsourcing.”

We are now at a tipping point from the early adopters to the early majority, largely a function of a generational shift with early career educators promoting and modeling the professional use of social media – Jonathan Sherbino

Sherbino, an avid user of Twitter,  believes social media “allows an individual to participate in a richer community.”  He uses Twitter “as an aggregator to condense numerous online conversations relevant to health professions education into a single stream. He also says  he pays ” more attention to superusers (individuals or organizations with a personally vetted record of high-quality information) than any member within my network.”

Michael Berkwits, editor at The JAMA and JAMA Network also points to social media’s curatorial capabilities.

“Social media allows publishers to distribute information to readers in the workflow and spaces they are already using. With innumerable options, most people direct-access only a handful of website homepages and instead use social media platforms as a way to curate “tables of contents” of people, interests, and sources they want to keep up with – Michael Berkwits

Carley uses personal learning networks, curation sites, and apps to help him track and collate useful content.

I have developed a personal learning network of individuals who collate and curate special interest areas. You cannot follow everyone, so find and follow the high return, high-quality individuals or sites that filter content for you. I also follow sites that act as clearing houses for social media content, which create a weekly digest and e-mail it to your inbox – Simon Carley

Social media is an important mechanism for communicating about science with the public. As Haymond points out, “Despite the tremendous benefits, including free access and wide distribution of information, the quality of online scientific information
is variable.”

Stephen Smith, Professor of Emergency Medicine, is firm that medical professionals should be more discriminating about what they choose to post online.

Because there is so much information, we should try to limit what we post to only those things that are both important and accurate, to the best of our knowledge. We should not be posting things for our own ego, to be able to say how many followers one has, or how many posts one has put up – Stephen Smith

When it comes to risks, Sherbino points to trolling, Smith to patient identification, and Haymond to the risk of posting misleading or inaccurate information. Carley considers that the “risks are overstated.”

The only difference is that social media shares your views with a wider audience. If you act inappropriately and unprofessional in real life, then more people will know it. Similarly, if you are a diligent clinician, researcher, and academic, then more people will find out – Simon Carley

The future of social media in medicine

Social media is changing the ways that patients interact with healthcare providers and the healthcare system. It is increasingly common for patients to use information technology to gain access to information and control their own healthcare.  Increased access to the Internet and mobile communication will bring public health information to many more people, more quickly and directly than at any time in history. Social media will widen access to those who may not easily access health information via traditional methods, such as younger people, ethnic minorities, and lower socioeconomic groups.

Social media is also changing the face of medical education. Sherbino goes so far as to state, “No longer are the giants of the field identified by their textbooks, citation rates, or leadership roles; rather, my residents and fellows are influenced by the scope of an educator’s social media brand.”

Carley quotes Rob Rogers, “we will change from those who give out knowledge to those who coordinate it. Social media will develop us all into “learning choreographers.”


The Power of Social Media in Medicine and Medical Education: Opportunities, Risks, and Rewards, Published May 22, 2018 as doi:10.1373/clinchem.2018.288225

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