Is social media a ‘slippery slope’ in medicine that should be avoided?
Accurate and relevant medical information can help patients better engage in their care and medical decisions. It is important, however, that patients receive medical information through credible sources.
Information derived from social media could lead to misinformation in several ways. Inaccuracies may result from lack of medical expertise, peer review or fact-checking. Patients may access dated content when old articles reemerge on social media. With the rise of sophisticated marketing techniques, artificial intelligence and incentivized digital opinion leaders, patients are targeted with information that, although not wrong, is biased toward a particular diagnosis, test or therapy.
Moreover, patients often consult testimonies of others on social media who may have the same disease, but different characteristics. This compounds medical misinformation. Consequences of medical misinformation can range from inconvenient and wasteful to life-threatening. Exaggerating a medical concern makes patients consider the most catastrophic outcome and leads to anxiety. On the other hand, downplaying a concern can lead to a delay in care or ignoring dangerous symptoms. Searching for wrong terms on social media can lead patients to subconsciously associate their symptoms with other search findings — patients may start to complain of symptoms they do not necessarily have.
Additionally, patients often come to the clinic with preconceived expectations about tests and treatments they should receive, which sometimes leads to dissatisfaction with appropriate health care decisions by their physician. A patient expecting a certain test to be done for their condition can get angry and suspicious if the test is not prescribed because it is not medically necessitated. Tests given to satisfy the patient can lead to waste of health care resources and the known risks of overtesting.
Because of doctor-name recognition on social media, patients and caregivers feel compelled to see the “best” doctors, leading to second and even fourth opinions.
Finally, to address “the elephant in the room,” physicians need to spend more time reeducating patients and alleviating social media-sourced concerns. This is time that most physicians do not have.
Tarek M. Mekhail, MD, MSc, FRCSI, FRCSEd, is medical director of the Thoracic Cancer Program at AdventHealth Cancer Institute. He also is a HemOnc Today Editorial Board Member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Disclosure: Mekhail reports no relevant financial disclosures.
Social media has, for better or worse, established itself as a dominant force in our society. Reaching out to patients using a medium they are already familiar with provides a comfortable avenue for connection and education. Videos, posts and blogs explaining in lay terms the disease process, treatment and what to expect can be immensely helpful to patients navigating this daunting field.
In addition, social media combats the feeling of isolation that commonly occurs with a serious diagnosis. Virtual support groups can be developed for patients, free of geographic limitations, bringing together people with even the rarest of diseases.
Social media also can be an effective tool for physicians to learn and interface with each other. Medicine is evolving rapidly, and it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to remain abreast of study outcomes, new drug developments and changes in best patient care practices. An example of how social media alleviates this challenge is physicians tweeting innovative data and findings from various national conferences or publications. Scientific data presented at ASCO Annual Meeting is disseminated in a timely fashion via electronic platforms by medical professionals and patient advocates. This generates a rapidly updated forum that can provide information in a short, easily consumable format and more importantly, potentially be applied quickly in the clinic.
Social media platforms are user-friendly and make it easy to post and share information, reducing concerns about time constraints. In order to make social media work in a safe, professional manner, there should be a division between personal and professional accounts. In addition, liability can be minimized if physicians avoid personalized advice and rather provide more general knowledge in their field, while ensuring platforms contain appropriate disclaimers.
Ultimately, the benefits of social media outweigh the risks and if we are thoughtful as a community on how to use this tool, it can be indispensable to connect both patients and providers.
Megan H. Jagosky, MD, is chief fellow of the hematology/oncology program at Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health. She can be reached at email@example.com. Disclosure: Jagosky reports no relevant financial disclosures.
Edward S. Kim, MD, FACP, is chair of solid tumor oncology and investigational therapeutics and medical director of the clinical trials office at Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health. He also is a HemOnc Today Editorial Board Member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Disclosure: Kim reports no relevant financial disclosures.