The Rise of the Social Media Doctor

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Your doctor is probably using social media at some point in their day. Some people (many of my patients included) are often quite surprised when they hear me talk about being on Twitter, Instagram, or sometimes even just the Internet in general.

Granted, being online wasn’t always typical for me. I used to shy away from it completely. In fact, I was worried that there was no place on social media at all for health care professionals like me.

Until one day the light bulb clicked on inside my head. Or maybe it was more of a dimmer, but growing brighter over the course of several months. I started to see value in tapping into social media from both a health-care and personal wellness perspective. I could actually make a difference, I imagined, by bringing the connections I made with patients behind closed doors out into the public eye.

But that wasn’t solely what drew me in. I also felt like I had to be on it—like I had an obligation to science. It stemmed from what I was reading online, my reactions spanning a range from surprise, to confusion when I checked out my feed.

For instance, I’d feel an explosive mix of amusement and fear as I read medical falsehood after falsehood, all in the span of a single morning’s scroll. Worse, I’d be horrified when I would see what was actually trending in the health conversation (Coffee enemas! Raw water! Jade eggs!), what people believed and were talking about, as if they were Real Things. I’d stare at Twitter with pseudoscience laughing maniacally back at me, daring me to make my move.

At first, I didn’t do anything. Many of us didn’t; we remained quiet, laying low and uninvolved, while a few other physicians dipped their toes into the virtual water. For instance, in 2004, internal medicine physician Kevin Pho, M.D., founded the popular website KevinMD, taking the lead on existing as a physician in the virtual world. And by 2016, ob/gyn and pain medicine physician Jen Gunter, M.D., was dubbed “Twitter’s resident gynecologist” by the Cut for her work debunking nonsense on her blog and her Twitter feed in a no-holds barred way.

So I decided to jump right in and take a stab at things—even if it wasn’t necessarily a precise incision like we physicians are used to. I felt that I needed to—many of us did—as we found ourselves defending evidence-based medicine more and more. Even within the confines of our very own office spaces, it started to feel like doctor and patient were not on the same team.

I created my own brand (@drcorriel), purchased a domain, and started to write a blog. Other doctors did it too, and some of them started to reach out to each other, looking for a way to amplify their voice. That’s when I created a Facebook group, called Doctors on Social Media (or SoMeDocs for short) for which I recruited other physicians to join. If other professions did it with such ease, why couldn’t physicians do it too? The original goal was to learn the tools needed to build a strong presence of physicians on social media, and to conquer it together. But it has since evolved into so much more.

Today, we are over 3,300 physicians strong and growing in number each day. Every one of us SoMeDocs may have our individual pursuits, but we all work as a team—as many other nonmedical groups on social media do—to support one another and accomplish our goals. We have now expanded to other platforms (on Twitter, we communicate using the hashtag #SoMeDocs) and have a website where we share our work. We also have in-person meet-ups called SoMeDocs Engage, in order to network with one another and grow even more. The project, for me, has turned from a leisurely pastime into an international platform, garnering attention beyond what I could have ever imagined.

Here are a handful of responses from physicians within the SoMeDocs community—with followings both big and small—on why and how they use social media, the challenges of it, and why the merging of health care and social media is crucial for patients and their well-being.

1. “So many women use this space for health searches; I want them to have accurate information.”

“The thing I find most frustrating with social media is how products or stories that don’t work or are false can spread like wildfire, but other things that are useful and helpful sit in cyberspace.”

—Dana Rice, M.D., urologist (@Dr_DanaRice)

2. “I hear many patients’ perspectives on social media and find that many have had horrible [health-care] experiences. I try to learn from those and make myself a better doctor.”

“Doctors need to speak out on behalf of patients, and social media is an effective way to do that. I use it to get my message and the work I am doing out [there], and to network with people who have a similar mission.

“People are going to disagree with you, and not everyone is so nice about it. If you are speaking on a controversial topic, people may attack you. While debate is important, being attacked helps no one.”

—Linda Girgis, M.D., family medicine doctor (@DrLindaMD)

3. “Doctors belong on social media so that they may expand their influence and give a more realistic picture of the medical world.”

“I use social media to promote my new podcast episodes and to inform my groups of new ideas and relevant articles. I am on social media to help promote my brand…and [to help] patients navigate the world of pain management.

“Doctors belong on social media so that they may expand their influence and give a more realistic picture of the medical world—a picture that is not painted by the pharmaceutical companies or Hollywood over-dramatizations.

“Social media has taught me that doctors need to be flexible and capable of relating to the changing environment. If physicians do not adapt to new technology and ways of doing things, they will be surpassed by their younger and more flexible colleagues, who may know how to better utilize social media.”

—David Rosenblum, M.D., pain management specialist (@algosonic)

4. “I want to reach more than just the patients I see in the hospital or my office.”

“There is still significant stigma and lack of knowledge about mental illness; social media allows me to do my part in educating and reducing stigma with the ability to reach more people. Doctors belong on social media to provide evidence-based knowledge in the midst of trends and misinformation.

“The majority of people who follow me are not my actual patients, but I still feel obligated to provide the same quality of info I would provide to someone sitting in my office. I am not looking to gain new patients, but to help the general public feel comfortable seeing a psychiatrist—because this psychiatrist on Instagram or Facebook that they follow is ‘normal,’ knowledgeable, and approachable.”

—Danielle J. Johnson, M.D., F.A.P.A., psychiatrist (@drdanij)

5. “I am on social media because it is the future.”

“We can’t deny its increasing role as a forum for discussions and a medium for sharing of information and knowledge. I believe physicians need to have a strong voice so that the public can have access to hard facts rather than anecdotes. I also believe that by having a strong physician #SoMe presence, the public will get to know truly how much we care, and how much we want our patients to be well informed and to have the best outcomes possible, especially in this era of shrinking face-to-face time.

“I use social media for what I am passionate about, and that is sharing tips to help people learn to be fierce self-advocates on their medical journey. I also share my love of books, history, and nonfiction. Further, I write to highlight the experiences of the working mom.”

—Uchenna O. Njiaju, M.D., specialist in cancer and blood disorders (@UchennaUmeh9)

6. “I’m on social media to broaden my audience and patient base, and to help dispel medical myths and false news.”

“It can be frustrating when you don’t feel like your message is reaching your intended audience or getting the engagement you want.

“With my inclusion of telemedicine, I’ve learned to direct patients to these services more easily. I’ve also learned how to use social media to get more speaking jobs and clients for my outside businesses.”

—Nicole Swiner, M.D., family/general medicine (@docswiner)

7. “I am on social media to inspire underrepresented students to pursue a career in medicine.”

“I am on social media to inspire and motivate others to lead healthier lifestyles in order to prevent chronic disease. I am on social media to inspire underrepresented students to pursue a career in medicine. As a first-generation American whose parents were born in Ecuador, I want to show them it is possible to become a physician. I use it to educate, motivate, and inspire others. I provide health information as well as mentor students who want to be physicians. I also use it to coach people who want to lead healthy lifestyles by providing nutrition information, meal plans, and exercise routines.

“Doctors need to be on social media to make an impact in the lives of those who use it as a means of obtaining information, whether it be education on vaccines, illnesses, or nutrition. It is a way to reach a wider audience and have our voices heard. This is our future and we need to have enough representation to dispel false information.

“I have learned that, with so much information that is out there on social media, many patients believe much of what they read. They look to social media to educate themselves and obtain information on their conditions. That’s why it is so imperative we have representation so we can continue to educate our patients not only in our offices but on social media as well. There are many on social media that say they are knowledgeable in a certain topic, [and] it is hard to discern who is telling the truth and actually providing safe and accurate information.”

—Veronica Contreras, M.D., family medicine and urgent care physician (@DrVeronicaContr)

8. “I believe doctors still have a powerful voice. We just need to practice harnessing it better for people, and social media does just that.”

“Whether we love or hate social media, we have to understand that it is here to stay and we need to leverage the advantages of it. ‘If we can’t beat them, join them.’ Ring a bell? We can use it to convey positive or negative messages. I believe doctors still have a powerful voice. We just need to practice harnessing it better for people and social media does just that.

“I think what is frustrating about it is being a victim to the negativity that is pervasive on social media; that is the flip side of the coin. In general, I also believe social media disconnects people when we actually need more connection in our current era and society.”

—Colin Zhu, D.O., family doctor and chef (@thechefdoc)

9. “My presence on social media morphed into an outlet to share fitness, wellness, and healthy practices.”

“Today, I use social media to share pertinent information, medical education, encouragement, fitness, physician wellness, and entrepreneurial pursuits. My presence on social media morphed into an outlet to share fitness, wellness, and healthy practices.

“Focusing on positive content, uplifting others, exchanging ideas with colleagues, educating patients, and exploring gratitude have taught me a great deal about using social media for positive effect. Information shared and discussions had on social media with colleagues have definitely impacted my patient care.

“Developing content that is pertinent has also taught me to explore the impact of my own wellness on my patients. Patients benefit from being cared for physicians who are invested, happy, and well.”

—Charmaine Gregory, M.D., emergency medicine (@CharmsFitDoc)

10. “We have to take public health education back, and it starts by going where the masses learn.”

“Social media has become the gateway source of most public health information these days, whether it’s searching for answers to common health problems or just simply finding a new doctor. Physicians have unfortunately been slow to embrace social media, and because of this reluctance, this void has been filled by numerous health-care frauds peddling everything from essential oils to coffee enemas and countless alternative medicines—from untested cancer therapy to the spurring of tried-and-true basic treatments for easily preventable deadly diseases.

“We have to take public health education back, and it starts by going where the masses learn—and that is in the world of social media. I try to use social media to teach my readers about issues that will resonate with them and perhaps will help them, whether it’s drug abuse, end of life care, or aging veterans. That’s my mission—to use my writing and public speaking as an adjunct to my basic mission of being a doctor. To help people live a long, happy, healthy, and productive life.

“It’s not for everyone. You have to have a thick skin to wade into the cyber-sewer. But when your writing resonates and moves people for the better, it is amazing.”

—Louis Profeta, M.D., emergency physician (@louisprofeta)

11. “I use the information [on social media] to formulate ideas.”

“I’m on social media to connect with like-minded individuals who are struggling to provide good care for patients while keeping up with the increasing headaches in health care. I’m a family physician who’s worked in multiple health care settings over the last two decades.

“I use the information [on social media] to formulate ideas. Last year, I started a webcomic called Doc-Related that provides a satirical view of practicing medicine within a typical U.S. health system. My comic strips resonate with clinicians, staff, administrators, and anyone else interested in the daily happenings of health care providers.”

—Peter Venezuela, M.D., family doctor (@doc_related)

12. “It has allowed me a platform from which to share my knowledge and expertise on my favorite topic: vaccinations.”

“My personal passion is for preventive medicine, specifically the way in which vaccination can improve life and health and help us to preserve our wonderful human potential. As a family physician, it has been extremely frustrating seeing patients who are very well-intentioned fall prey to the misinformation and ‘fake news’ that abounds on the Internet. I use social media as a means to amplify voices of science and reason.

“For someone [like me who has] a lot of ideas in her head about how to make things better (at least in my humble opinion), it has allowed me a platform from which to share my knowledge and expertise on my favorite topic: vaccinations. When someone searches up a vaccine question, I want physician and scientist voices to be the voices they are hearing. Social media is an unparalleled way for physicians to reach hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Without it, we are relegated to a one-on-one message in our exam rooms.

“Social media can be a blessing or a curse. It can be isolating but it can also bring connection. It is a tool like any other. We just have to know how to use it properly and it can be a wonderful thing.”

—Gretchen LaSalle, M.D., family medicine (@GretchenLesalle)

13. “Social media certainly helps me keep a finger on the pulse.”

“I’m on social media because I want to be part of the conversation! Doctors must be on social media to dispense information to fight (or hopefully at least balance) some of the dangerous misinformation about health issues, from vaccines and medications, diets and supplements, to the ever-evolving preventative care screening recommendations.

“Additionally, I use social media to start conversations and share health information with my patients and community. I have a particular passion for adolescent issues, and social media allows me to connect with other parents and tackle the awkward, scary, and intimidating issues that teens face today. I blog about the topics that I see over and over in the exam room, many that no one want to bring up but many want to hear about (like STDs, drugs, alcohol, vaping, ADD medication abuse, etc.).

“Social media certainly helps me keep a finger on the pulse of breaking medical news, from food poisoning outbreaks in my community to new national guidelines for hypertension. Knowing what health related news (both accurate and ‘fake’) that my patients are reading, hearing, and discussing offers me fresh, more engaging angles to bring up and to address health issues.”

—Jill Grimes, M.D., family doctor (@JillGrimesMD)

14. “With a physician social media presence, we are able to add valid, science-based information to the overall narrative.”

“I think it’s important for physicians to be on social media because there is a lot of bad medical information being shared out there. With a physician social media presence, we are able to add valid, science-based information to the overall narrative.

“I am on social media because [I was] a physician who became a patient negatively impacted by benzodiazepines. I use my personal Twitter account to share my experience in order to spread awareness about the difficulty of tapering. I’ve learned through my numerous social media interactions with patients undergoing benzodiazepine withdrawal to be more empathetic and caring. This is partially because I experienced it myself but I’ve also taken the time to truly listen to what they are going through.

“The most frustrating part about social media is running into people who disagree with your opinions and express themselves in a toxic manner. I am all about civil discourse and I have a natural urge to appease everyone, but I’ve found that’s not always possible.”

—Christy Huff, M.D., cardiologist (@christyhuffmd)

15. “If we can make complicated topics simpler to understand, we can help countless numbers of people across the globe.”

“I was frustrated with the amount of misinformation out there. My oncology patients would bring articles on unscientific, sometimes dangerous treatments. They would believe this information was true because it was published online, or stated by a celebrity. As physicians, a part of our job is to educate and engage with patients and the community. Social media provides a wonderful forum for this.

“We are able to reach a large group from around the world, share evidence-based science, and answer questions. We are able to help individuals become more informed patients or advocates. Doctors have always educated individuals in their communities, and now we have an international community that depends on us for facts, science, and education. If we can make complicated topics simpler to understand, we can help countless numbers of people across the globe. 

“Without the benefit of tone of voice or inflection [on social], statements can be taken out of context or misconstrued. There are also individuals who like to troll. Those interactions can be frustrating. I have also seen discussions devolve into arguments. As physicians, we must remain professional when engaging on social media.”

—Shikha Jain, M.D., hematology oncology physician (@ShikhaJainMD)

16. “Physicians are still the repositories of medical knowledge.”

“I use social media to disseminate information about celiac and other diseases, advocate for those with celiac, enhance professional connections, and advocate for our profession. I also use it to make connections within the writing community.

“Physicians belong on social media because we are uniquely able to disseminate accurate and timely medical information to the general public, improve the quality of medical dialogue and advocate for our profession. Although journalists and bloggers do this as well, physicians are still the repositories of medical knowledge. Together, we have the opportunity to change behaviors and policies.

“I’ve learned countless ER tips and tricks and read fascinating cases. Within social media groups, I’ve learned about creating a website and an online persona. Within the food allergy/celiac groups, I’ve found resources for my own child and for my patients.

“Information-sharing is one of the greatest benefits of social media. Medicine can be an isolated profession: We go into patient rooms alone, make decisions alone, and stew over clinical conundrums alone. Social media has changed that, enabling us to discuss cases and learn from each other.”

—Kim Greene-Liebowitz, M.D., emergency and urgent care physician (@k_liebowitz)

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Dana Corriel (@DrCorriel), M.D., is a board-certified internist practicing in Pearl River, N.Y. She has received multiple distinctions for her role as a social media influencer, including being named one of the top 10 internists to follow in 2018 by Medical Economics. She regularly lectures on effective and creative uses of platforms, including upcoming conferences at Harvard and Rush Universities, and hopes to inspire others to find the right tools for pushing boundaries and innovating optimally.

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