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Inside Health Care: Is Your Doctor a Social Butterfly?


In a research letter recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences looked at 5,156 tweets from 260 U.S. doctors and found that 3 percent of tweets (144 tweets), sent by doctors included profanity, potential privacy violations, sexual material or discriminatory statements. One percent (55 tweets), of tweets had messages that included unsupported claims about products. This research and other posts have sparked discussion around professionalism, doctor-patient relationships and patient confidentiality.

Pediatric specialist, Brian Vartabedian, M.D., who blogs on 33 Charts said, 'As a 'representative' of my hospital and a physician to the children in my community, how I behave in public isn't any different than a decade ago. Social media is just another public space.' He recognizes the subjective interpretation of what constitutes professional behavior both online and offline but argues that 'social media has not forced the need for new standards of physician conduct.'

Though the American Medical Association has adopted a policy on the use of social media, this is not enough, according to Katherine Chretien, M.D., lead researcher of the JAMA letter, and Dr. Kevin Pho of They said medical schools should teach about the professional opportunities and ethical issues surrounding the use of social media.

Dr. Pho explains why physicians should participate in social media, 'Because that's where the patients are. This is a new generation of informed patients, who are going online to get information, and the bigger the disconnect between us and them online, the harder our job is going to be in the exam room.'

Family physician, Ted Eytan, M.D., may agree. In The Permanente Journal, he said, 'Although there are risks for health systems to participate in social media, there are also risks in not participating. In a patient-centered model of health care, absence from social networks that are important to patients might lead to a gap between patients and clinicians.'

Some physicians have decided to close that gap. In a recent white paper, Bunny Ellerin, M.B.A., of Ellerin Health Media interviewed 10 physicians from around the country who are engaging in social media. She points to a shift in culture: 'Medicine has traditionally operated as a closed society, where physicians talk to each other about medical topic, but not generally outside the circle.' With so much health information for the public available online, Ellerin said some physicians are motivated to help guide people to reliable online information. For example, Dr. Jennifer Dyer, an endocrinologist at a Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, uses Twitter to disseminate health literacy, endocrinology and nutrition information. However, participating in social media is no small commitment. Of the physicians that Ellerin interviewed, most said they spent one to two hours a day, sometimes as many as three hours writing blogs, responding, networking and tweeting.

The 10 social butterflies Ellerin interviewed are not the only ones migrating to social media. About 1,300 doctors are listed in, a directory of influential doctors on Twitter, according to the Huffington Post.

Are you 'friends' with your doctor, or do you 'follow' your doctor? Are you a clinician who does or does not use social media? Share your thoughts on social media and health care.

Bryan Vartabedian, M.D., is a pediatric specialist in Texas who blogs on 33 Charts. Ted Eytan, M.D., a family physician in Washington, DC and a director at Kaiser Permanente blogs at Ted Eytan, MD. Bunny Ellerin, M.B.A., runs Ellerin Health Media and writes on her blog. Jennifer Dyer, M.D., an endocrinologist at a Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, tweets at EndoGoddess. Internal medicine doctor and leading social media physician, Kevin Pho, M.D., blogs at

' By Sarah Jorgenson

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Medical/Hospital Practice   Health Information Technology   CFAH Staff   Inside Healthcare  

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