In 2009, the Kansas City, Missouri, area — like much of the world — was plagued with anxiety about the H1N1, or swine flu, virus. The virus was moving quickly, affecting thousands of Americans.
Natasha Burgert, MD, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, was in the thick of efforts to stem the panic, fielding phone calls and questions from patients in search of information and vaccinations to protect their families from the sometimes-deadly illness. Even the best of physicians might have felt overwhelmed, but Dr. Burgert tapped social media to address patients’ fears effectively and efficiently.
“I needed to communicate with families, and Facebook was a good way to do that,” says Dr. Burgert, who provided her patients with daily updates and crucial information about swine flu. “Social media eliminated phone calls and provided reassurance to families. … Once we saw how social media was serving two goals, we decided to expand the project.”
Since 2009, Dr. Burgert has embraced the use of other digital tools, such as Twitter and blogging, to stay in constant contact with her community. And she is just one of countless physicians utilizing this technology to enhance the service she provides to patients.
A National Trend
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), more than 70 percent of oncologists and primary care physicians turn to social media platforms at least once per month to research and/or share critical information with colleagues and patients. And in a time when anyone with a computer or even a smartphone can connect with an audience hungry for information about health, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of having educated, trained voices online.
“Even though [social media] is digital and not face to face, it really does bring value to the patient/doctor relationship that I think in other ways we are missing. If we all really believe in what we do and we believe that we want to take care of patients, I think that this is a very practical, easy, free and really satisfying way to do it.”
— Natasha Burgert, MD, Pediatric Associates, Kansas City
Jen Brull, MD, FAAFP, physician and owner of Prairie Star Family Practice in Plainville, Kansas, says it is not uncommon for patients to bring her medical information they have found online. Like many physicians, she separates fact from fiction to head off potentially serious medical consequences.
“If a patient brings in a printout from an Internet site, we just need to take the time to review the source, discuss the information, and either agree it is valid or discuss why it isn’t,” says Dr. Brull. “I’m glad that my patients are thinking about their health and want to involve me in that discussion. … It gives me the opportunity to direct them toward reputable sources and talk about healthy lifestyle choices in general.”
These efforts take on added dimensions through her leveraging of social media. To counter misinformation, Dr. Brull keeps her patients up to date via her own Facebook page, which she regularly updates with the latest health news and wellness tips. That creates a beneficial ripple effect for a much broader audience than her patient base.
“Social media isn’t scary, and it doesn’t have to be a barrier,” she says. “I love being digital. … The messages quickly spread beyond just the people I am personally connected to.”
To review the AAFP’s Social Media for Family Physicians: Guidelines and Resources for Success, visit aafp.org and enter “Social Media” in the search bar.