How GPs on social media are changing the face of medicine

Some of the best known GPs on Twitter took part in a lively debate on the use of social media by doctors, at the RCGP's annual conference in Glasgow. Sharon Alcock, who chaired the discussion, highlights the key points.

Sharon Alcock chaired the ‘You and Social Media’ debate
Sharon Alcock chaired the ‘You and Social Media’ debate

The ‘You and Social Media’ debate, was heavily trailed on Twitter and Facebook, with a twitteratti panel including Professor Clare Gerada @clarercgp, Glasgow GP Dr Margaret McCartney @mgtmccartney and RCGP’s e-learning medical director @DrBenRiley.

Doctors from across the UK, Europe and as far as Australia tweeted that they were attending live online by following the #RCGPsome hashtag during the debate. A live Twitter feed was projected onto a screen and reflected in the discussion, which was declared the largest GP tweetup in history.

This was a truly interactive, exciting way to discuss and receive honest, live feedback, and surely a true reflection of social media values.

Twitter takes the debate worldwide

A few minutes into the hour our discussion was trending number one on Twitter in the UK. We began receiving comments from doctors in Spanish, from Bucharest, Portugal, New Zealand and rural Australia.

‏@SallyCockburn was *waving frantically* from Melbourne, singing the praises of international GP collaboration, while ‏@Shingle_beach summed it up for quite few: ‘I’m not at the conference but feel I’m there through the power of the hashtag!’

By now trending worldwide on Twitter, the projected tweet feed was moving so fast I could hardly reflect the comments in the discussion before they were replaced with more.

So could the use of these powerful, global social media sites by healthcare organisations help them achieve better services for patients or even greater patient involvement?

The evidence would suggest that in a growing number of areas it is. Comments from the floor included examples of trusts already using Facebook to direct people to services and give them access to good health information, with popular messages going viral quickly and directly to a widespread community.

How is social media being used to improve health?

Professor Gerada caused a stir by revealing that she had given many of her patients, including doctors with addiction and mental illness problems, her email and mobile number.

Internationally, we heard, doctors are reaching individuals in rural parts of Africa and Asia via extensive mobile phone networking, where other technologies do not exist, offering advice and crucial contact.

And feedback from UK patients to doctors and trusts online via the main networks is beginning to be gathered. ‘Twitter is the means to building communities, not the end,' commented @nazia252. But with many trusts blocking social networking sites on their internal networks, their creative use in patient and professional avenues is being made difficult.    

Some doctors in the room wanted a more basic introduction to social media outlets. It was difficult in the Twitter firestorm to ensure that doctors not engaged already with social media were not excluded, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.

Why GPs need help with social media

With examples of training support and CPD via social networks already evident, ‘should the use of social media now be included in the curriculum for trainees?’ asked @GP_Trainee.

Repliers gave a resounding ‘yes!’ and debated that digital age trainees probably did not need to be taught the basics but that some direction in using social media professionally, along with teaching for earlier generations of doctors, should be given. I’d say the RCGP’s Social Media Highway Code is a good starting point.

It’s addictive, this real-time communication thing. It can’t replace face-to-face consultations, but think of the possibilities for public health and professional development if it can be this much fun?

Sharon Alcock is a health journalist and the founder of www.LimeGreenMedia.net that supports health sector digital communication (@LimeandGinger).

See the RCGP debate told in Storify by doctors who were there:

The RCGP is consulting on a social media highway code for GPs. To contribute, email your comments to communications@rcgp.org.uk or visit the college’s Facebook page.

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