Potential Benefits of an Online Presence
I recently read yet another in a series of blog posts about all the "potential pitfalls of an online presence" penned by the estimable PalMD over at WhiteCoat Underground. I usually enjoy Pal's stuff, but this one felt like a lawyer-ghost-written piece I'd already read a dozen times before. After the litany of the various pieces of an online presence (FaceBook, Twitter, blogs) he rattles off the usual trifecta of legal, ethical and professional considerations (complete with a genuflection to HIPAA), summing up with the old "there's no such thing as anonymity" riff.
Ho, hum. Old news.
Yes, we all know about
If someone were to go on and on about the dangers of automobiles, rattling off crash fatalities and stories of lives ruined by injuries sustained wrecks of those devil-carriages, who would ever have the nerve to again set foot in a car? Without some sense of perspective on the upside of the internet, the significant potential negatives for doctors might deter some of them from the possible rewards of this powerful new medium. I therefore submit the following as benefits that might be gained from an online presence:
Practice Web Site and Marketing
At the same time as Pal's fear-mongering, we have just about every other authority proclaiming the necessity for every doctor's practice to have a web presence via a customized website. Various benefits include accessibility to patients (though I've always wondered why I need to be accessible to patients around the world, when I can only be of benefit to those in relatively close geographic proximity to me), ability to publicize things like office hours, location and practice philosophy, and direct patient communication via special portals that allow email.
Although it took me longer to come around to having an office website than it did to get online in other ways, I will admit that the main upside at present is meeting patients' expectations for online capability. Even when there is amazingly little practical use for a website, patients in the 21st century expect that a medical practice will have one. That said, there are a few logistical advantages. It is easier to direct patients to the website's awesome directions (penned by moi; you've heard the expression "directionally challenged"? I'm "directionally gifted") than it is to give directions over the phone. Office polices are there, updated and edited more easily than a paper brochure. All in all, it's turned out to be an inexpensive, positive addition to the practice.
FaceBook and Twitter
Although FB originated by and for college kids as a way of both keeping in touch with old friends and staying current with new ones, these benefits have been adopted by an older demographic (much to their horror), including their parents. Social networking is a function of social animals. Even those of us who are old and decrepit (you know, who graduated from high school back in the 70's) enjoy renewing old friendships and maintaining current ones. Posting random updates on what we're doing (some in fewer than 140 characters) and comments on others' updates is fun.
One might consider limitations on "friending" or "following" patients, but, just as in Real Life(tm), it is possible to establish reasonable boundaries, analogous to those set on socializing with patients outside the office. Why should the simple fact of our profession make these kinds of social interactions off-limits to us? As long as we observe the same kinds of reasonable cautions online as we do offline, doctors ought to be able to enjoy internet social networking as much as anyone else.
My first and most extensive online presence consists of blogging, and I feel I have reaped enormous benefits from it without having fallen prey to any of the hazards so direly warned of by PalMD.
First and foremost, blogging is writing. Blogging is its own form, different from a novel, short story or article, but it's still writing, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. For those of us who happen to enjoy writing as well as doctoring, why should we not avail ourselves of the opportunity afforded us by blogs to have our writing read by a wider audience than we could ever hope for otherwise, just because we happen to be physicians?
We can also use our blogging platforms to persuade, inform, and educate; functions inherent in medical practice that we can now use the internet to share with an enormously expanded number of folks than may happen to darken our doorways. What about our professional and ethical responsibility to spread useful health information for the greatest good? Shouldn't those factors serve to mitigate at least some of those terrible risks some claim can come from our online presence?
Finally, it's all about the people you meet. In order to be a good blogger one must read other blogs. Appropriate commenting and linking results in the formation of a community of people joined by mutual interests and respect (crayzee flaming notwithstanding, though seeing "-eur" appended to all kinds of nouns has become pretty amusing). Deepening those relationships one-on-one, whether electronically or in person ("meat-space" is the most interesting way I've heard it put) has been fun and rewarding. I've heard it said time and again that this ability to connect with more people, especially those whom we would never have met otherwise, is the best thing about the internet. I agree heartily, and not just because it's how I met Darling Spouse.
So even though doctors must take special care with their online presence, as they do in all other areas of their lives as well, the benefits of participating in this new virtual world can be wonderful; certainly positive enough to outweigh the potential pitfalls.