Why doctors should become Instagram influencers

Complementary Medicine

By Michael Woodhead

21 Oct 2019

It’s often portrayed as a superficial appearance-focused social media site but Instagram has the potential to be a valuable educational medium for doctors to engage with patients and clinical peers, according to a group of NSW clinicians.

With over a billion active users every month, Instagram offers a way to exchange clinical and healthcare information particularly with younger people, according to doctors at the University of NSW and Westmead Hospital, Sydney.

If used with appropriate safeguards, Instagram can be an online resource for doctors to communicate with patients using a mix of photos, videos and written information such as in providing examples of disease cases and explanations of what patients might expect, they write in Internal Medicine Journal.

And since many patients are already sharing their medical experiences through Instagram, the involvement of clinicians can help provide more evidence-based and high quality medical content to help support patients, particularly in visually rich specialities such as dermatology, they write.

“Physicians and health organisations can disseminate health campaigns to the millions of daily users, especially as it is now more common for people to acquire news from social media outlets,” they say.

Doctors should also be aware that through the use of hashtags, many patients are already using Instagram as a kind of disease support group to share experiences and relive the  psychological burden of disease by no longer feeling isolated, they add.

“Some patients may also be more inclined to seek medical review [after using Instagram] as it may appear as a more accessible and realistic option after witnessing other patients’ experiences with treatment,” they note.

Instagram also offers clinicians an alternative to traditional formal teaching methods in medical education, overcoming barriers of distance and lack of time to provide feedback and consultation with peers.

“It may be used to share difficult, interesting or rare cases by including clinical, pathological or radiological images with the clinical history. For cases that have been diagnosed, these cases act as a ‘virtual’ grand round and this has been used by major journals,” they write.

But as with any social media platform, doctors must be aware of the negatives such as patient confidentiality and consent for sharing content, and taking care to ensure that online engagement with a patient does not become an online consultation.

Instagram posting by healthcare professionals also raises concerns about self promotion, conflict of interest and financial gain, they add. Without any system of peer review, great care is needed to avoid providing misinformation or having information being misinterpreted, the authors warn.

Doctors must also take steps protect their own privacy online and beware of online discussions crossing professional/personal boundaries or becoming abusive, they add.

Despite these caveats they conclude there may be overall benefits for doctors creating an Instagram account as an educational tool, with the following recommendations:

  1. Include formal qualifications in the biography to assert authority.
  2. Post educational content that is succinct and concise, with links link back to appropriate formal resources. (eg educational videos or procedural demonstrations).
  3. Be proactive online and making regular Instagram posts or stories.
  4. Include a disclaimer for followers with serious medical concerns and what steps can be taken in order should they wish to seek further medical attention.
  5. Only use clinical images and patient information online if backed by a legally robust consent form.

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