Imagine you’re at a friend’s party in your neighbourhood. You recognise a few of your patients. As you join the conversation you continuously blurt out phrases like: “Make sure you vaccinate your kids,” “Our practice has opened a skin clinic; it is important to get an annual skin check,” and “Here’s a copy of our latest newsletter.” When one of your patients tries to start a friendly conversation you say: “Sorry, I don’t befriend patients,” and you walk away to chat with a colleague.
You would make a complete fool of yourself.
Still, that’s how many health practitioners behave online. We often use our professional websites and social media accounts as promotional channels and we’re told not to accept patient friend requests on Facebook. When receiving positive feedback from our patients we have to be careful not to share or re-tweet it as this could be interpreted as a patient testimonial by AHPRA.
At the same time there is an unstoppable digital patient movement happening. Health consumers are getting smarter and better organised. The ePatient is empowered by digital technology and social networks. Their disease-specific knowledge matches that of health practitioners – and is often superior. Powerful peer-to-peer networks help consumers to make better decisions about their health care.
And this is only the beginning.
Ignoring digital technologies is not going to help. This will create a digital divide between consumers and health care services. We have to find a way to accommodate participatory healthcare. I don’t believe this means that health consumers should e.g. have the ability to remove or hide information from their electronic health records – but if they want they should be given access and, together with clinicians, take responsibility for their care and the quality of their healthcare data.
We must get over our social media fear so we can start to listen to health consumers online and take part in discussions.
We’re trained to deliver care in the one-on-one situation, but in the near future health practitioners will also engage with online communities. An attitude change towards digital technologies is needed. E-health should improve the interaction between clinicians and consumers. This requires their input at all levels of development.
And, instead of warning students and clinicians about the dangers of social media, they need to be trained to integrate these networks in their day-to-day work.