The increasing popularity and use of social media in medicine offers great opportunities for healthcare professionals and their institutions to interact with patients and colleagues at a pace that has never before been possible. For oncologists, the variety of web-based and mobile technologies that make up social media allow for patient education and authoritative health messaging. Professional development and knowledge sharing, as well as increased direct patient interaction, are other attributes of these technologies. However, while social media offers great potential in healthcare, oncologists must be aware of the possible legal and privacy issues that come along with its use.
The Value of Social Media
According to Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, the immediate past-chair and member of the Integrated Media and Technology Committee from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), social media lends itself specifically to oncology for the very reason that the field appears to be evolving quickly. “Determining the social media outlets that present the most benefit to oncologists depends on each practitioner’s needs,” he says (Table 1).
Twitter appears to hold significant value for oncologists, explains Dr. Dizon, who was also the lead author of an article published in the Journal of Oncology Practice that provides clinicians with guidance on using social media in oncology. “This is primarily because users have the ability to preselect individuals to follow to suit their own specific needs,” he says. “Users can also create lists to further streamline tweeted content. I have separate lists for people who tweet about their experiences with cancer, cancer centers, news disseminators, and colleagues.” Dr. Dizon adds that one of the best uses of Twitter is for following breaking news and plenary presentations from medical conferences by utilizing specialized Twitter feeds. These feeds consist of followers attending the conference who provide their own take on study abstracts.
Dr. Dizon says that blogging is another useful way to engage with colleagues. “The feedback provided from other professionals is useful in receiving another point of view on a given topic,” he says. “Those bloggers who write well or cover hard-hitting topics can also be picked up by wider-circulated platforms, providing them with great exposure and further feedback on certain topics.”
Issues of Concern When Using Social Media
When using social media, all healthcare providers should be cautious of HIPAA regulations, says Dr. Dizon. “It’s important to understand that once something is posted online, it can’t necessarily be taken back. Therefore, all posts should be kept as general as possible, especially if they involve clinical scenarios. In addition, anything posted to a social media site is potentially discoverable, even with the highest level privacy protection settings. Depending on the nature of the content, posts have the potential to hurt a provider’s professional reputation.”
After reviewing the social media policies and guidelines of 35 professional medical entities, including the American Medical Association, Dr. Dizon and colleagues from ASCO discovered several common, important concepts in the application of social media (Table 2). “Oncologists should be clear about who owns the activity seen in their social media posts,” Dr. Dizon explains. “For example, when posting to an institution’s blog, it’s important to note whether you’re speaking for the institution or expressing your own viewpoint.” To that point, he feels it is critical to not merge professional and personal social media accounts or blogs. “There’s a risk that the boundary between doctors and patients becomes blurry. Furthermore, it increases risks for encountering HIPAA compliance issues.”
Disclosing relationships and conflicts of interest is important for putting social media postings into context, especially when sharing study results. Dr. Dizon says providing a medical opinion should be done with caution, particularly if it involves engaging with out-of-state patients, which state and professional licensure requirements may not allow. Also, it is vital to know what the clinician’s institution is willing to cover in the event that he or she is accused of breaking patient confidentiality laws.
The Bottom Line: Sharing Medical Knowledge
“It is in our best interests as oncologists to be aware of, if not actively engage in, social media to improve how we care for patients,” says Dr. Dizon. “The technology can increase how medical knowledge is shared with the rest of the world. At the same time, it’s critical to be careful. Social media users must respect privacy laws, keep professional and personal activities separate, and be cognizant of their organization’s social media policies to protect what can be a great asset to us.”