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Would You Accept Your Doctor's Friend Request?

The thing about social media is it's a lawless society in a lot of ways. It's almost like you have to break a rule before you even know it exists. It's only in the last couple of years that we would even consider connecting with our friends and colleagues on social media, yet alone our health care workers. Still, many of us have turned online to solve our health care dilemmas, track our medical records and get reviews on medical personnel.

A few examples:

Google Health

Lets you import your medical records, manage your health care contacts and highlight drug interactions (both prescription and supplemental).

Apps for Weight Loss

Your mobile phone is now your exercise partner. You can track calories consumed and burned, workout routines - virtually every detail of your weight loss journey.

Angie's List

Need a new doctor? Go to Angie's List to read reviews and find the best medical provider for your needs.

Web MD

Get immersed in a portal of anything and everything related to health information including an A – Z directory of health disorders and targeted information by sex, age and lifestyle.

Family Doctor

Find health information for the whole family from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Site Traffic Rankings from Alexa for Webmd.com, Angieslist.com and Familydoctor.org from March - Aug. 2009

Clearly, we are turning online for health information and resources. But, are we ready or open to the idea of individual medical providers turning to us to connect or share information online? Do we see our physicians as our "friends?" Do we want to see their family vacation photos or have them post our latest test results on our wall? It seems absurd. Maybe this will change with a new generation of health care providers. But will it change for the better or for the worse? The University of Florida News article "Future doctors share too much on Facebook" shed light on social media usage among medical students and residents. Researchers from UF's colleges of Education and Medicine did a review of 362 UF medical students' and residents' Facebook sites and found most were publicizing personal information physicians would never normally share with their patients. Information like their political affiliations, memberships in controversial groups like ("Physicians looking for trophy wives") or pictures that depict them smoking and drinking. Obviously this type of behavior doesn't do much for the medical profession as a whole or the reputations of the individuals. But can the medical community add value by sharing and connecting through social media? A few ideas for medical professionals considering entering into the social media realm as I see them:

Share your expertise

People seem to be taking back their health. Yes, we self-diagnose and self-prescribe which is not always the best case scenario but we have also taken control over our health by being informed about the foods we eat, the supplements we take and our predisposition to certain diseases and health conditions. There's more access to medical information than ever before but there's also more mis-information than ever before. The medical community has an opportunity to share their insights and close the mis-information gap or at least narrow it. A great example is Bryan Vartabedian, M.D. He's a pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital specializing in gastrointestinal disorders. He blogs and tweets Doctor_V about the latest findings related to his field. His information is certainly relevant to parents exploring their children's health issues as well as medical colleagues in related positions. One of our clients, METI – a company that makes patient simulators that bleed, breathe, talk and blink for health care education, went online to allow individuals to submit workshop classes and register for their global simulation conference.

Do it if you love it

Social media demands transparency. The only reason for anyone, regardless of their profession, to begin a social media journey is because they are passionate about sharing, absorbing and communicating about their cause – whatever that cause is. If health care providers enter into social media to increase their patient load, it will be evident in the quality and types of information they share.

Don't prescribe

Given the limited amount of face time most patients have with their physicians, more and more of us are turning to Google to arm ourselves with information before and after our office visits. But most medical professionals agree that a face-to-face visit as well as a review of your medical history is necessary before making any individual diagnosis, especially if they have never seen you before. Sites like Kool Docs claim to allow you to receive online consultations, prescriptions and absence excuses for school or work. At best, it appears cheesy and at worst it takes advantage of people who may be sick and in need of valid, professional care.

Though the health care community has been virtually "home sick" when it comes to social media (similar to the legal and financial communities), there are opportunities to connect and share meaningful insights. Like any other person or organization engaging in social media, transparency and relevance has to be at the forefront.