The Power of Social Media

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This story is from the Anamnesis episode called Resilience and starts at 32:22 in the podcast. It’s from Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, an assistant professor at Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Chiang is the chief medical social media officer for the 14-hospital Jefferson health system, as well as the founding president of the Association for Healthcare Social Media.

Can Social Media Stop Medical Misinfo?

As we all may know, over the past year, we struggled with misinformation as it relates to the pandemic. It goes without saying that trust in healthcare and health professionals is quite possibly at its all-time low.

I realized early on during my training that how our patients receive their medical information isn’t necessarily through the brief clinical interactions that we have in hospital or in the office, but rather through media, whether it’s mainstream media or increasingly more and more social media.

I have realized that over all these years that there are many benefits to using social media, but also many pitfalls. One of those pitfalls is in how we present ourselves to the public. There were various individuals early on that I saw were misrepresenting themselves on social media as health professionals without the appropriate training or people who were speaking outside of their areas of expertise. That’s when I founded a hashtag campaign on Instagram called #VerifyHealthcare.

Basically, we were encouraging medical professionals to disclose where they are trained, what their credentials were, as well as encourage their followers to double and triple check who they were trusting online.

From the response that we got, my colleagues and I decided to come together and really talk about all the issues that we face on social media and how we can sort of improve upon the information that’s being put out there.

We decided to form a professional society, the first of its kind. It’s a 501(C)(3) nonprofit professional society, and we named it the Association for Healthcare Social Media. In a way, we sought to be a resource to other health professionals because many of us have been at the social media game for many years and have learned lessons, sometimes the hard way, and wanted to share our experiences.

Many of us also felt that bringing ourselves together, organizing into an association, could also give us some leverage in communicating with our institutions about the importance of social media. Part of my role at Jefferson Health is also educating my colleagues here on the importance of social media and the various benefits of being on there, and, again, the pitfalls of being on social media as well.

The amazing thing about the association is that we all came together from all different disciplines, all across the country, in the same way, a couple of years ago and we found each other through social media because we recognized that those of us who founded the organization kind of shared the same goals of being online and being kind of representatives of the field.

I think that medical school certainly helps build a certain degree of resilience, but I think the types of public scrutiny and criticism that we face on social media is a whole different situation altogether.

I would say that over time there has been like small incidences where I have learned along the way that certain things that I say online sometimes can be misinterpreted. My intentions can be misinterpreted. Those lessons over time, through my years of being on social media, have definitely built on my resilience and have made me develop a bit of a thicker skin.

We ended up being able to partner with various social media platforms directly — for instance, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Pinterest — to further educate our colleagues on how to use their platforms most effectively. I think the social media platforms have also become more interested in helping us out because they also recognize over the past year how misinformation on their platforms can really drive how our public health outcomes go.

Polarizing Pandemic Health Messaging

But over the past year with the pandemic, all this has been highlighted even more. We have been challenged more than ever on our health messaging because so much of it is so polarizing. Whether it’s information about the pandemic itself, the coronavirus, vaccines, many of us who are active on social media have had to face the additional scrutiny of the public.

Many of my colleagues have received death threats and other sorts of personal threats. We’ve had to come together to really understand how best to deal with those situations.

And, fortunately, we are a community online. Many of us have found each other and commiserated, and have been able to talk it out, and have been there for one another throughout this time.

Even before the pandemic, many of us who spoke out about vaccines would often get comments about that type of content and, of course, increasingly so after or during the pandemic.

And yes, we’ve received death threats and other types of threats, and many of us … I personally have been baited into conversations through private messages, always responding very respectfully to the people who are asking questions, but not knowing that those questions were coming at me with kind of bad intentions, and subsequently having my responses be thrown out on the internet and circulated among the anti-vaccine group.

That certainly taught me a lesson early on in how I respond to comments and not to fuel the flames, and really kind of pick our battles and try to tease out which interactions online are truly going to be productive conversations.

I think part of it is that it comes with the territory. Many of us have been at this for years and we sort of know what we are stepping into. At the end of the day, we are really valuing the potential benefit of impacting public health positively over the negative comments that we may get.

I think that meeting these friends online, these Internet friends, has been really helpful. I’m so glad that social media exists today for us to do that so easily because I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if we were in such an extended time of lockdown without that sort of avenue to communicate with one another.

The organization was founded by a group of physicians and we hope to really expand to include other disciplines in healthcare even more. We do have members who are nurses, PAs, physical therapists, and whatnot, but we’d like to have better representation from different disciplines.

An Opportunity for Change

As much as the pandemic has been a challenge, I think that I also saw it as an opportunity because we haven’t seen quite as much attention on health professionals for a very long time, especially for the younger generation being exposed to so much on social media, spending so much time on social media during the pandemic, it was a way to really — I don’t want to say indoctrinate — but influence the younger generation to see kind of this is what healthcare looks like today and these are the challenges that we face. And again, being completely transparent about the challenges of working in this field, and also all the great things about being a physician at this time and how important it is to our society.

We did see it as an opportunity to really put out information to the public and especially younger generations, but also as an opportunity to learn what peoples’ concerns were. I feel like we’ve been operating in this bubble many times working in healthcare. To really get that immediate feedback from the general public and hear what their concerns are, I think, has helped me…

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