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Nearly all U.S. doctors are now on social media

Monday, September 26, 2011

The number of physicians using sites such as Facebook and Twitter has grown so quickly that Gabriel Bosslet, MD, realized the moment his study on physician social media use appeared in June that it already was out of date.

The data, collected by Dr. Bosslet between February and May 2010 and posted more than a year later on the Journal of General Internal Medicine site, found that 41.6% of doctors use social media sites.

However, between April and May 2011, research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found that 84% of doctors use social media for personal purposes. Then in August, nearly 90% of physicians reported that they used at least one social media site personally, according to a survey by the online physician learning collaborative QuantiaMD.

By those numbers, physicians are well ahead of the general adult population -- 65% of the general public use social media, according to a study published in August by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

33% of U.S. physicians have received Facebook friend requests from patients; 75% of them declined the invitations.

"The rise in social media has been so meteoric," said Dr. Bosslet, an internist at Indiana University Health and an affiliate faculty member at the Charles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics in Indianapolis, which sponsored his research. The time that passed between data collection to his study's results being posted was like a "generation later," he said.

However, although physicians appear to be embracing social media, they are still feeling their way around it. According to QuantiaMD, 87% of physicians make personal use of social media, but a lesser amount, 67%, use it professionally. And one thing that hasn't changed during those 18 months is the lack of patient-physician communication on social media.

One-third of the QuantiaMD survey respondents said they had received a friend request from a patient on Facebook. Three-quarters of the physicians declined those invitations.

"There is a real reticence on the part of many physicians to use social media, or even email for that matter, to communicate with patients," said Nancy Fabozzi, health care market research and competitive intelligence specialist with Frost & Sullivan. Not only are physicians worried about liability and privacy issues, but also "there's not enough hours in the day, quite frankly," she said.

Link to mobile

Experts say part of the increase in social media use among physicians probably can be tied to the rise in smartphone and mobile device use, which followed a similar trend of rapid adoption among physicians.

Many physicians adopted smartphones for personal reasons and then found ways to use them in their professional lives. A report published May 4 by Manhattan Research said that 81% of physicians use smartphones.

Similarly, as personal social media use grew, in part because it's easy to access from a mobile device, physicians started thinking about ways to incorporate social networking into their professional lives.

"Physicians are one of the most mobile of all professions," Fabozzi said. Her organization, Frost & Sullivan, said 75% of 63 health care professionals surveyed use social media for business purposes.

Mary Modahl, chief communications officer for QuantiaMD, which surveyed 4,032 physicians, said that when it comes to professional use of social media by physicians, there are two categories: physician-to-physician communication and physician-to-patient. The most active use by far is physician-to-physician interaction, which usually takes place in closed physician communities, she said.

The QuantiaMD survey found that the types of social media site with the highest physician traffic professionally were online physician communities at 28%. The next most popular site for professional use was LinkedIn at 17%. Twitter and "other" sites tied for the lowest use at 3%.

Physicians adopted mobile technology in a dramatic way, first with the personal digital assistant, then smartphones, and now the iPad and other tablet computers, Fabozzi said. The devices are ideal tools to use in almost every situation physicians would find themselves in both professionally and personally, she said. And the ability to be always connected makes online social networking even easier.

Modahl said she has not collected data on the relationship between mobile devices and social media but agrees with the hypothesis that the two are related. Among members of QuantiaMD, about 70% have logged on using their smartphones. She also said most comments left in QuantiaMD's online forums are left via mobile devices.

Talking to patients -- or not

The QuantiaMD survey does not parse whether the 15% of physicians who said they use Facebook professionally are using it to connect with patients or colleagues. But Modahl said that, by and large, physicians are not looking to connect with patients on the popular social networking site.

"This crosses over a professional/personal line that physicians would like to draw as a fairly bright line," Modahl said.

She said physicians also had a low familiarity of online patient communities. But those who were familiar with them saw them as having a very high impact on patients.

"To me, this is the herald of a trend. The more physicians become familiar with patient communities, the more likely they are to recommend them, because they do view them so positively," Modahl said.

Dr. Bosslet said he thinks there will be separate venues for physicians on social media, depending on whether the goal is to disseminate information or communicate directly with patients. IU Health, for example, where he practices, just unveiled an information portal that allows patients to log on and get test results or send physicians secure messages.

However, Fabozzi said, patients and others will demand more contact with physicians on social media. "The genie is out of the bottle, and people are not going to go back to communicating in a one-way communication. They want two-way communication, three-way communication, and they want the velocity and the volume of the type of communication that social media enables."

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