Social media use: the new risk factor?

Doctors already query patients about whether they drink, use tobacco or are up to date on their immunizations. Should they also be asking about the patient’s use of the social media?

The question was raised on Twitter recently by Jamie Rauscher, a consultant and strategist on digital communication for health care organizations. Then it was picked up by Dr. Elaine Schattner of the Medical Lessons blog, who reflected on the world of social media and why physicians should or shouldn’t blog or tweet.

Dr. Schattner writes that blogging, for her, is both liberating and fun: “As I’m no longer practicing, this wide-open world of shared facts, some questionable, and new ideas keeps me alert and, maybe, in-touch.”

Might this not be the case for patients as well? Rauscher joined the discussion, noting that when physicians don’t spend much time online, they can be unaware of what their patients are encountering, especially sources of information that are less than reliable.

And she makes an important point: Doctors “cannot help patients find credible resources unless they understand what patients are doing online.”

She writes:

I don’t mention my social media activity to my physicians because no one asks me and there isn’t a logical time to broach the topic during an exam. Perhaps doctors should start including questions about patients’ online activity, including social media use, in the questionnaires they give patients. This could provide an opening to discuss the topic.

I can think of many reasons why screening for this could help improve patient care. For one thing, it would identify where the patient gets most of his or her information and could help clinicians more effectively tailor their patient education. For another, it’s an opportunity to assess what the patient knows and to address misinformation or provide information that’s more detailed and in-depth.

But there’s the practical perspective to consider too. People’s online habits have a way of shaping their entire daily routine. When the National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey earlier this year, it found that the increasing use of technology is starting to interfere with a good night’s sleep. Six in 10 of the respondents said they spent time on their computer before bedtime and many of them reported lower-quality sleep and feeling drowsy during the daytime.

I’ve personally learned that the sedentary aspect of Facebook, Twitter, blog reading and online discussion can seriously interfere with the need for more physical activity.

It can be hard for doctors to offer helpful, appropriate counseling about insomnia or weight gain if they don’t take the patient’s online habits into account.

Then there are the emotional minefields of bullying and harassment, which prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue guidelines earlier this year for pediatricians to be on the lookout for online trouble among kids.

Many of these issues are already being debated in the medical world: Should doctors be on Facebook? How should they interact online with patients and the public? What’s ethical and what isn’t?

Although there’s a growing consensus that health care organizations need to join the online conversation (for an example, check out the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media), whether to routinely screen patients regarding their social media habits is a different issue altogether – and at least as far as I can tell, one that apparently hasn’t gotten much attention.

What do readers think? Should doctors ask patients more often about their use of the social media? Would it lead to better patient care?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons