A new survey from the American Osteopathic Association finds more than half of millennials (54%) and more than four out of 10 (42%) adults are or would like to be friends with or follow their healthcare providers on social media. The online survey was conducted by The Harris Poll in April 2018 on behalf of the AOA.
The survey also found nearly two thirds of millennials (65%) and 43% of all adults feel it is appropriate to contact their physician(s) about a health issue through social media either by posting on their page or direct messaging them. Doctors, however, are still navigating how to manage the patient relationship on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms that are traditionally designed for sharing content that is not private or sensitive.
“Please don’t send me a picture of your rash on Facebook Messenger,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, an osteopathic family physician and associate professor at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. “I want to be an active part of my patient’s care, but social media does open up opportunities for over-sharing or providing information that would be best managed in the office setting or through designated telemedical technology,” says Dr. Caudle, who has built a vast social media following and is a regular television guest on health matters.
Health professionals are broadly prohibited from communication over social media if any information shared could be used to identify a patient. Over the past few years, the Department of Health and Human Services has instituted numerous policies and standards to guide practitioners who use social media.
Still, some physicians find social media to be an effective tool for sharing important medical information.
“People—and young people in particular—don’t go to the doctor as often as they should but they are interested in improving their health and wellness,” says Mikhail Varshavski, DO, an osteopathic family physician in New York City who is the most “followed” doctor on social media. “If I can inspire a positive lifestyle change in someone through YouTube, then I’ve been an effective physician.”
Better known as ‘Doctor Mike,’ Dr. Varshavski reaches millions weekly through his popular YouTube channel, as well as a Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts. He believes that social media is breaking down communication barriers that previously existed in health care, and driving the wellness conversation around important topics including burnout, addiction, nutrition and mental health.
Dr. Varshavski’s approach aligns with the third survey finding: Nearly one-third of Americans (32%) have taken an action related to their health (e.g., changed diet, exercise or medication, taken supplements or tried an alternative treatment such as acupuncture), as a result of information they read on social media. Moreover, 15% of parents of kids under 18 have self-diagnosed a health concern as a result of information they read on social media.
“As an osteopathic physician, I went into this field to make differences in lives by not only treating disease but also through education and prevention,” says Dr. Varshavski. “Social media is a tool doctors can use to continue this mission, one that can influence the health decisions of millions,” he continued.
While health information sourced from social media has been shown to help patients make better informed decisions, people must be certain they are seeking out credible sources and limiting consumption if it’s causing anxiety, cautions Dr. Caudle. Research has found “health anxious” individuals may not benefit from increased access to online health information, forums and ‘Dr. Google,’ which can generate anxiety and may even influence a patient’s perceptions of their symptoms.
“Social media and other digital platforms hold great promise for improving health outcomes,” says Dr. Caudle, “but the conversation should start in the doctor’s office—and in some cases remain there.”
According to Pew Research, 69% of the U.S. public uses some type of social media. Among 18-29 year-olds, that number is 88%. 40% of people ages 18-24 do not see a medical professional annually.