Leveraging Social Media to Dispel Fears, Misinformation

By Katy Mena-Berkley
Monday, August 31, 2015

In 2009, the Kansas City, Missouri, area — like much of the world — was plagued with anxiety about the H1N1, or swine flu, virus. The virus was moving quickly, affecting thousands of Americans.

Natasha Burgert, MD, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, was in the thick of efforts to stem the panic, fielding phone calls and questions from patients in search of information and vaccinations to protect their families from the sometimes-deadly illness. Even the best of physicians might have felt overwhelmed, but Dr. Burgert tapped social media to address patients’ fears effectively and efficiently.

“I needed to communicate with families, and Facebook was a good way to do that,” says Dr. Burgert, who provided her patients with daily updates and crucial information about swine flu. “Social media eliminated phone calls and provided reassurance to families. … Once we saw how social media was serving two goals, we decided to expand the project.”

Since 2009, Dr. Burgert has embraced the use of other digital tools, such as Twitter and blogging, to stay in constant contact with her community. And she is just one of countless physicians utilizing this technology to enhance the service she provides to patients.

A National Trend

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), more than 70 percent of oncologists and primary care physicians turn to social media platforms at least once per month to research and/or share critical information with colleagues and patients. And in a time when anyone with a computer or even a smartphone can connect with an audience hungry for information about health, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of having educated, trained voices online.

“Even though [social media] is digital and not face to face, it really does bring value to the patient/doctor relationship that I think in other ways we are missing. If we all really believe in what we do and we believe that we want to take care of patients, I think that this is a very practical, easy, free and really satisfying way to do it.”
— Natasha Burgert, MD, Pediatric Associates, Kansas City

Social Media 250tallJen Brull, MD, FAAFP, physician and owner of Prairie Star Family Practice in Plainville, Kansas, says it is not uncommon for patients to bring her medical information they have found online. Like many physicians, she separates fact from fiction to head off potentially serious medical consequences.

“If a patient brings in a printout from an Internet site, we just need to take the time to review the source, discuss the information, and either agree it is valid or discuss why it isn’t,” says Dr. Brull. “I’m glad that my patients are thinking about their health and want to involve me in that discussion. … It gives me the opportunity to direct them toward reputable sources and talk about healthy lifestyle choices in general.”

These efforts take on added dimensions through her leveraging of social media. To counter misinformation, Dr. Brull keeps her patients up to date via her own Facebook page, which she regularly updates with the latest health news and wellness tips. That creates a beneficial ripple effect for a much broader audience than her patient base.

“Social media isn’t scary, and it doesn’t have to be a barrier,” she says. “I love being digital. … The messages quickly spread beyond just the people I am personally connected to.”

Crowdsourced Clinical Solutions

A social media site for physicians is proving to be a powerful tool to solve medical mysteries.

A branch-like specimen coughed up by a 14-year-old patient was unlike anything Easton Jackson, MD, had ever seen. So he turned to SERMO, a social network that links providers from around the world.

Utilized by more than 340,000 physicians, SERMO allows physicians to anonymously post photos and share clinical information with a diverse population of colleagues. They compare notes and devise solutions to enigmatic cases.

“With SERMO, you can quickly get a dozen responses from a variety of specialties,” says Dr. Jackson, a family medicine physician and the Electronic Medical Record Medical Director of Granger Medical Clinic in West Valley City, Utah. “Generally, you will always get an answer on there.”

Communication in Action

Less than an hour after Dr. Jackson posted the photo to SERMO, a family medicine physician responded, suggesting that the specimen was a bronchial cast. A slew of other physicians quickly began to weigh in, as well — among them a pediatric cardiologist, allergists, pathologists and pulmonologists.

Together, they confirmed that all signs were pointing to Fontan-Associated Plastic Bronchitis, a condition that sometimes develops in children who have undergone cardiac surgery. Not treated properly, it can be life-threatening.

Based on the feedback he received from his colleagues, Dr. Jackson sent the boy to a cardiologist for immediate consultation. Two days later, cardiac specialists successfully treated the child.

“On SERMO, there are hundreds of thousands [of specialists], and you can get their expertise immediately and from all over the country and now into Great Britain as well since they’ve opened it up to UK doctors,” says Dr. Jackson. “Take advantage of your colleagues and their experience and expertise.”

To review the AAFP’s Social Media for Family Physicians: Guidelines and Resources for Success, visit aafp.org and enter “Social Media” in the search bar.