NAPNAP 2012: Taking Control of Online Healthcare Information


Bryn Vartabedian, MD, offers valuable tips and advice for health care providers who are interested in using social media to engage with and educate their patients.

Although adoption of social media by health care providers (HCPs) remains low, it is likely only a matter of time before it catches on. During his presentation at the 2012 NAPNAP annual conference, Bryan Vartabedian, MD, FAAP, assistant professor, pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine; attending physician, Texas Children’s Hospital, explained that patients are more media-savvy than ever and are changing the ways in which they search for and acquire information. This is especially true when it comes to health care information. Dr. Vartabedian said that health care providers are going to have to change in response.

Concerns about liabilities related to professionalism, image, and patient privacy play a part in the reluctance of HCPs to participate in social media. According to Dr. Vartabedian, these issues are not as big as they are made out to be. He said that concerns over maintain patient privacy are easily handled by avoiding any patient-specific dialogue—patient de-identification isn’t difficult and social platforms are public spaces. “The rules haven’t changed,” he said. “It is just a different medium.”

Many HCPs are concerned about patients reaching out to them via a social platform and how to handle that. Dr. Vartabedian, whose Twitter feed!/doctor_v has over 9,000 followers, says this happens far less than people think. He did, however, offer four steps to take when it does happen: 1) take dialogue offline -- arrange to talk by phone; 2) address the patient’s concerns; 3) educate the patient on personal safety of personal health information; and 4) document the event in the electronic medical record and make it clear that the patient initiated contact.

He challenged attendees to consider whether HCPs have a moral obligation to occupy the online space. As an example, he talked about the autism vaccine safety hysteria. At its height, a scared young mother searching the Internet for information would have been inundated with links to sites filled with unfounded claims and inflammatory rhetoric, and because that was the content that was dominating the space.

He suggested that perhaps the 60,000 members of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the 50,000 nurse practitioners in this country should have been taking a more proactive online and social media approach to patient education. If each one of them had created one piece of digital content, suggested Vartabedian, they would have completely ruled the search engines. “I would call it a failure of the pediatric community and the pediatric nursing community for not doing their part to create the content that our patients see,” he stated. “We are first to criticize the content our patients see, but we are the last to make it.”

Tips for Using Social Media:

  • Avoid patient-specific issues
  • Don’t be anonymous
  • Remember that everyone is watching
  • Being nice helps
  • Consult the social media policy at your practice or institution
  • Find a role model
  • Watch and listen
  • Take control of your digital footprint
  • Create content that defines you

Check out Dr. Vartabedian’s blog 33 charts.

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