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MDs avoiding social media in droves: poll

The majority of Canadian physicians are avoiding the use of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook for professional purposes because they anticipate too many pitfalls and too few benefits, a new CMA poll shows.

The results, from a recent survey involving the CMA’s ePanel, offer a detailed assessment of MDs’ use of social media. They also paint a discouraging picture for those who feel physicians should use these tools to improve their own knowledge of patient care.

The results are based on responses from 885 (24%) of practising or retired physicians, medical residents and students belonging to the ePanel, which was created to provide a rapid response when the CMA needs member input on issues or policy.

The findings, which mirror those from an ePanel survey conducted three years ago, show that almost 90% of respondents believe the use of social media tools in medicine poses professional and legal risks, and almost 40% think social media tools are of little or no use in day-to-day medical practice.

The opinions run counter to social media guidelines published by the CMA in 2011, as well as more recent guidance from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Although both organizations acknowledged the risks related to social media use, they also pointed to the potential benefits, such as improved communication.

The survey revealed that Canadian doctors’ use of social media for professional reasons remains very low, with only 14% of respondents using LinkedIn and 4% using Twitter. (Use of these tools for personal reasons is much higher except for LinkedIn.)

Physicians’ online involvement for professional reasons tells a far different story. Almost 40% of respondents said they had joined an MD-oriented online community, 45% had participated in an online discussion forum on a medical topic, and 96% had used Google when seeking medical information. As well, almost one-third of respondents had recommended a medical app to a patient, reflecting the burgeoning growth of these mobile tools.

There are clear demographic trends in the responses — medical students were not only more aware of the risks inherent in social media but also recognized the potential benefits.

Dozens of individual comments provided with the survey results painted an illuminating picture of current attitudes within the profession.

“At this point, I don’t believe any of these social media are safe enough to protect patient confidentiality and physician privacy,” one doctor wrote.

Another stated emphatically: “I see no value in social media for any purpose whatsoever, but especially not in medicine.”

Another critic responded: “Social media is just another distraction from real patient care. Do not waste our time.”

However, a counterpoint was offered by this respondent: “I think social media is a very powerful tool that cannot be ignored in today’s society. While anything powerful comes with inherent risks, I believe that wise and professional use can mitigate them.”

Another doctor took the middle ground: “I would not feel comfortable using social media to communicate with individual patients, but it may be useful for group communication or educational activities.”

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.