How social media is changing the healthcare landscape

How social media is changing the healthcare landscape
Image: Pixabay.com

There seems to be a significant growth of social media usage in the Australian healthcare industry.

In the past years we have seen surprisingly influential social media campaigns, like AHPRAaction, ScrapTheCap, InternCrisis, and very recently NoAdsPlease. These campaigns not only rally for better health care policies; they also signal a shift towards more transparency and accountability.

Characteristics of the social media campaigns are:

  • They spread quickly and generate a lot of media attention
  • The participants are very passionate about their cause
  • They are often supported by different groups including consumers
  • They may or may not be supported by professional organisations
  • They are very effective.

At the same time other social media movements, like FOAM (free open access medical education) are gaining momentum. Again, these grassroots initiatives are driven by passion – a powerful force. It won’t take long before health care professionals can do their continuing professional education via free social media sources.

I don’t think many professional and health care organisations are ready for these changes – yet they are coming whether we like it or not.

Psychiatrist and blogger Dr Helen Schultz is a social media enthusiast. Helen was involved in the successful AHPRAaction campaign. She believes social media skills are important for doctors: “I feel in the next 6-12 months there will be even more awareness of the need for doctors to know how to use social media professionally, but also how to use it to your advantage, building your brand, your platform and your voice.”

“The time has passed where we can be complacent and think patients will listen to us just because we are doctors,” she says. “We are largely absent from health debates currently, and others educate about health which may not always be necessarily evidenced based. In addition, we must claim our social media real estate, ie own our domain names and twitter handles to prevent others pretending to be us.”

Helen has taken it upon herself to organise a social media workshop for doctors and managers, and she has invited me to speak about blogging. Helen: “On the back of the success of the AHPRAaction campaign – and because I was so inspired by my colleagues around Australia, I thought we had to meet and put our heads together about how doctors can use social media in Australia to join health debates and run really successful campaigns.”

Some excellent speakers presenting at the workshop: Ms Dionne Kasian-Lew, Dr Brad McKay, Ms Jen Morris, Dr Jill Tomlinson, Dr Amit Vohra, Ms Mary Freer, and Dr Marie Bismark. Dr Mukesh Haikerwal is guest of honour.

Social Media by the Sea is a full day interactive workshop with practical tips and insights from the experts about their successful use of social media, whether it be as a blogger, advocate or part of campaign building. Time: Saturday, 15 November 2014. Place: Peppers “The Sands Resort”, Torquay, Victoria. Send email.

Blocking social media at work is not the answer

Restricting social media usage at work is sometimes done out of fear. “We don’t want our staff to be distracted.” And: “They shouldn’t waste their time on social media.” Other understandable reasons may include perceived cyber risks or the cost of excess data usage.

An organisation that blocks social media sites may send out one or more of the following messages:

  1. We don’t trust our staff
  2. We don’t really understand what social media is all about
  3. Even though consumers are using social media for health purposes, we’re not really interested

In most cases decision makers are probably unfamiliar with social media and may see it as a threat.

Why staff should have access

Here are five reasons why health care staff should have access to sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Blogs etc:

  1. Social networks are powerful learning tools for staff
  2. Social media are increasingly used as health promotion tools (such as embedded YouTube videos)
  3. Shared knowledge accessible via social media will assist staff in finding answers and making decisions
  4. Interactions with peers and thought leaders can increase work satisfaction (and will contribute to staff retention)
  5. Participating in social media and other new technologies will raise the (inter)national profile of an organisation

When it comes to cyber security, I believe there are alternatives that are more effective than blocking social media access including upgrading and updating operating systems, updating antivirus software, improving backup procedures, clever password management and online safety training for staff.

A simple social media staff policy also goes a long way.

Social media in healthcare: Do’s and don’ts

Facebook in health care
Image: pixabay.com

‘Reputation management’ was the topic of an article in the careers-section of this month’s Medical Journal of Australia. As I have blogged about reputation management before I was asked a few questions about the way my practice has used Facebook.

I think Facebook and other social media have the potential to improve communication with our patients and colleagues and make healthcare more transparent – if used wisely of course.

Unfortunately the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) has scared the healthcare community with their social media guidelines. Doctors are now being told by medical defence organisations to be even more careful with social media, but I’m not sure I agree with the advice given.

Do’s & don’ts

Here are the do’s and don’ts as mentioned in the MJA article:

  • “Do allow likes and direct messaging on the practice Facebook page, but don’t allow comments. This will avoid any dangers associated with comments classed as testimonials by AHPRA. It also avoids problems such as bullying that may occur when comments are made about other comments.”
  • “Don’t respond to negative remarks online, as it risks falling into the category of unprofessional conduct if brought before the medical board.”
  • “Don’t befriend patients on Facebook if you are a metropolitan practice, Avant’s Sophie Pennington advises, so as to keep some professional distance. She says that in regional and rural areas it can be unrealistic to have this separation.”
  • “Do link your Facebook page to your website, LinkedIn and any other profiles you have set up online. This will help to ensure that these options appear higher on the search-page listings when others look for your name.”
  • “Don’t google yourself!”

Negative vs positive feedback

I think negative comments online are a great opportunity to discuss hot topics (such as bulk billing and doctors shortages) and to engage with the community in a meaningful way. Positive feedback by patients is wonderful and should not be discouraged, as long as it’s not used as a way to advertise health services.

Health practitioners should be supported to communicate safely online. But not allowing Facebook comments is defeating the purpose of social media.

AHPRA’s draft social media policy

The 2012 draft social media policy by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) caused a lot of upheaval. Health professionals expressed concerns it was too prescriptive. Now there’s a new version and the organisation is requesting feedback.

A 76-page consultation paper has been posted on the AHPRA website and it includes drafts of the social media policy, revised Code of conduct, revised Guidelines for advertising and revised Guidelines for mandatory notifications.

It looks like AHPRA has taken the feedback on the earlier version on board. The new draft Social media policy is less prescriptive. Health professionals have to follow strict professional values, no matter if they’re in the elevator at work, the pub, or on Twitter or Facebook.

What does it say?

Most of it is common sense, but I thought these two changes were worth mentioning:

  • Health practitioners are expected to behave professionally and courteously to colleagues and other practitioners, including when using social media (Code of conduct 4.2c).
  • Testimonials on Facebook and other social media networks have to be removed by health practitioners (Guidelines for advertising 7.2.3).

I’ve read all 76 pages but it’s not entirely clear to me what exactly a testimonial is and whether I’m now required to remove my LinkedIn testimonials and endorsements by colleagues from around the world.

Also, it will require some explaining when removing or refusing friendly, unintended testimonials from our patients on e.g. Facebook, and worse, it may even put health practitioners off social media. I won’t mention Google testimonials – they are impossible to remove. It would be great if AHPRA can provide some clarification and reassurance here.

Interestingly, an issue that causes heated debates has not been mentioned, namely anonymous posting on social media networks by health practitioners who are identifying themselves as such, but are using a pseudonym instead of their real name. Some say it’s important for e.g. whistleblowers to be anonymous, others say health professionals always have to be identifiable. But perhaps it’s a wise decision by AHPRA not to open this can of worms.

Good or bad?

The problem with regulations like this is that it increases liability for health professionals and practices already operating in a highly regulated industry – especially against a backdrop of the recent national eHealth developments and the legal issues that health providers are facing when signing up for the PCEHR. Some of the risks are: less innovation and progress, a defensive attitude by practitioners, higher legal and insurance costs, increased AHPRA fees and eventually more costs for patients.

That brings me to the risk management paragraph in AHPRA’s draft Code of conduct, which states that it’s good practice “to be aware of the principles of open disclosure and a non-punitive approach to incident management”. I wonder if AHPRA is going to follow this advice when a practitioner breaches a social media clause. Something tells me that the regulator will follow a punitive approach if we forget to delete Mrs Jones’ friendly Facebook recommendation.