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Good Health: Doctors belong in the social media conversation

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The other morning my boss caught me staring into my cellphone at my desk.

He's a nice guy, so even if I had been goofing off, which I wasn't, he would have been OK with it.

But I wasn't goofing off. I was working, scrolling a customized news feed and Hoovering up an invaluable health-information glean that had begun on schedule, two hours earlier, in the bathtub.

Fortunately, my daily soap-and-water health news briefings have yet to end with a mobile device under water.

Staring at your phone may be bad form in restaurants, but in 2015 the thumb swipe has become a legitimate way of conducting work and staying engaged with the world, wherever you are, whatever you do, media workers and health professionals alike.


That is why Mayo Clinic was smart to embrace the medium as early as it did, launching its Center for Social Media in 2005 and hosting a two-day Social Media Summit each year since 2010. Next fall, Mayo hosts the first ever global meeting for its social media health network, a gathering planned to be in Australia.

"Mayo encourages physicians to understand how to use these tools appropriately," said Dr Farris Timimi, medical director of Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. "Most patients make their decisions based on a reference network. More and more often that includes online communications. We check our phones an average of 14 times a day."

Mayo was one of the first major health centers to take social media seriously, and its initiative now looks savvy and wise. If you have ever watched as a large employer weighs in on a nascent viral scrum in the making concerning its service — and I learned about this firsthand after recently tagging a major airline with my complaint about a botched flight — you know that companies can instantly humanize their presence with a few words of empathy from a human with a phone.

The 200 people who had come to Rochester for the Mayo Clinic Social Media Summit last month traveled from 20 states and five countries. Having long since learned beginners' rules like never tweet in all caps — IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING — and try not to say anything unless you have something to add, they gathered to discuss social media strategy for health professionals.

In itself, that is a radical use of the clinic's resources, given that 60 percent of hospitals block their employees from using social media at work at all.

As Timimi points out, hospitals are kidding themselves if they think building a wall within the company mainframe is an effective strategy for the popular portals driving our communications, just plain thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices.

Instead, Mayo aims to train doctors and health care workers to be a positive presence in the digital format. "The key is to train heath care professionals to do this effectively, strategically, and compassionately," said Timimi. His advice: Try to listen more than you speak, and know that whatever you post is a product of reflection, not reaction. "Don't lie, don't pry, don't cheat, you can't delete," is how Timimi puts it.

Though I delete things all the time.


But Timimi makes an important point: that medicine and health care is nothing if not a vibrant public conversation right now, one that health care providers can either join in or sit out. "It is incredibly empowering for people who used to be isolated by geography," he said. "Particularly for a target audience with narrow interests but who are dispersed geographically."

Like families who share a rare illness.

I have been socialized to a certain extent by social media over the years. Which is why I'd add a couple of other rules to that list, ersatz nostrums that I imagine explain why Dr. Timimi has 5,500 followers and mine could fit into a small movie theater at the multiplex:

You can't change anyone's mind and you wouldn't want to try. If you really must swear, always use an asterisk in place of the vowels. And whatever you do, don't drop the phone in the tub.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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