Best Practices for Navigating Social Media

Engaging with social media platforms can offer medical professionals the opportunity to share information, debate policy and practice issues, and educate their patients and colleagues, which can lead to highly motivated patients and communities and expanded professional networks. However, the use of these platforms can also be associated with risks that can lead to unintended negative outcomes.

During the American Thoracic Society 2020 Virtual conference, Lekshmi Santhosh, MD, MAEd, Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, discussed several strategies that healthcare professionals can employ to navigate social media safely and successfully without the fear of jeopardizing their reputations, spreading misinformation, or increasing medical liability.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media Engagement

Dr Santhosh began her presentation by discussing a few of the benefits of engaging with social media platforms, as well as the reasons that some healthcare professionals may choose to avoid them.

One important positive is that social media can help professionals extend the reach of their research. In addition, it can be an effective way for them to stay current on the latest medical literature and discoveries.

“Many times, I’ve actually read an article as it comes across my social media feed, even before I read the printed copy of the journal,” Dr Santhosh explained.

The use of social media can also be an effective tool for networking with experts in a particular field, which can spark engaging conversations. It can also help professionals develop and promote their personal brand.

Despite these benefits, Dr Santhosh went on to say, there are legitimate reasons why some professionals are reluctant to engage with these networks.

One of the main reasons is lack of time. Although social media is intended to provide individuals with the ability to access information quickly and to effectively communicate with others, it is easy to go down the “rabbit hole” and spend excessive time scrolling on platforms.

In addition, for those working in the healthcare industry, the line between the professional and the personal can be a particularly difficult one to navigate in the current digital age.

“Many people are concerned about the risks of mixing personal and professional content. They worry that someone may misinterpret their words. This can be particularly important if your patients or their families follow you on social media,” she said. “There are also concerns regarding discrimination by employers, who may not agree with your opinions or posts,” she added.

Successfully Navigating Social Media in the Era of COVID-19

Dr Santhosh said that with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the social media landscape evolved at a rapid pace. At the onset of the crisis, there was an immediate shift in online trends that reflected the needs and concerns of the general public as well as healthcare workers. Unfortunately, with easy access to so many platforms, there was an abundance of misinformation being disseminated.

“Along with public-facing chatter, the medical social media community has been awash in everything from hot-off-the-press literature to pre-prints to theories to hypotheses to conspiracy theories and everything in between. Now more than ever, it is up to us as healthcare professionals to help the public navigate the flood of misinformation on social media outlets,” she said.

Dr Santhosh identified 4 levels of social media engagement (consuming, promoting, discussing, and creating) and explained how each one can be leveraged to navigate the current online environment.

Consuming Content

Dr Santhosh said that to safely and appropriately consume social media content, it is very important to first consider the source. Who is the author? What gives them the authority or expertise to create and post content? What are their biases? What is their agenda? Do they have any conflicts of interest or blind spots?

She noted that inaccurate information can spread like wildfire, which has been particularly evident during the pandemic.

“We have a duty to make sure that everyone is consuming content appropriately and we need to call out content that is not safe to consume or disseminate,” she said.

Promoting Content

Dr Santhosh explained that before choosing to promote another’s content, medical professionals should ask themselves many of the same questions they would ask when they are consuming content. In addition, they should think about the voices they are amplifying. It is important to examine their own social media profiles and feeds to determine whether they are truly listening to and promoting a diverse audience.

Dr Santhosh went on to say that it is critical to remember that science is continually evolving. As a result, recommendations and guidelines can change quickly as more information becomes available. Therefore, a post that you promote this week may be outdated the following week.

Finally, she said to consider the Dunning Kruger effect, a type of cognitive bias of illusory superiority that occurs when people overestimate their talents and abilities.

“Remember that in social media, the loudest voices are not necessarily the correct ones. You really need to be discerning when thinking about whose content you are promoting,” she said.

Discussing Content

Dr Santhosh said that one of the most enjoyable aspects of social media can be participating in real-time debates over medical literature or other scientific content. Before engaging in these debates, it is important to think about your own authority and expertise, as well as any biases or blind spots you may have.

“At the same time,” she said, “just because you are not an ‘expert’ this does not mean that you do not have unique experiences or perspectives to bring to the table.”

It is also important to remember that debates can easily take a turn for the worse. When someone is not behaving with professionalism towards you, every effort should be made to respond with professionalism.

“If you’re getting into a passionate debate, don’t type something out that you might regret later,” she said. “You should also maintain a low threshold for reporting or blocking any content that is harassing, discriminatory, or bullying.”

Creating Content

Dr Santhosh said that content creation is really where a people’s originality can shine as they promote new ideas or start new social movements or collaborations.

“You have a unique perspective, and you should share it. Creating content also goes with building your own community,” she said. As with consuming, promoting, or discussing content, however, professionals should think about their authority, expertise, and biases.

When posting about a clinical experience, respect for patients and the protection of their privacy must be given the highest priority.

Although it may be acceptable to share a teaching point, this must be done with the utmost caution, ensuring that the patient is not identifiable in any way.

“A good rule of thumb is that if your patients or their family members read your post, they should not be able to identify themselves,” she said.

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