Innovations Against The Information Epidemic: Medical Professionals on Social Media

Innovations Against The Information Epidemic: Medical Professionals on Social Media

November 01, 2021

By Carl Bognot, UPCM 2024

“Dok, nabasa ko sa Facebook…” These are words that many doctors hear from patients, family, and friends during consultations or conversations outside of the clinic. These are words that may sound shallow upon first hearing them but signal to us that people do not want to remain ignorant about health. In fact, they seek to know more about it and are taking the initiative to read about it where it is most accessible to them -- on social media. Given the highly accessible nature of the information online, are they correct or appropriate? Are people beneficiaries or victims of information on social media?

This is one of the issues that doctors like Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan aim to address by being on social media. Dr. Isip-Tan is known by many for her online persona “The Endocrine Witch” or “Dok Bru,” and she shared with her insights regarding the use of social media as a medical professional in an interview with InSPIRE Magazine.

Dr. Isip-Tan realized how rampant misconceptions about health are on social media and she wants to help correct them with her social media pages. She advocates for health literacy, the ability to keep, obtain, and understand basic health information and services that are needed to make appropriate health decisions. She believes that if there is correct and appropriate health information accessible online, then people can make the right decisions regarding their health.

The current ravages brought about by the pandemic constrains a whole-of-society approach to developing and implementing eHealth interventions. The intersection of social media and telemedicine has catapulted Health information education campaigns into the mainstream media.

Bringing People Together

Many medical professionals have already taken advantage of social media to reach more people and share basic information regarding health and medicine. Some have chosen to write Facebook posts regarding various health topics like COVID-19 vaccines. Other medical professionals have chosen to ride the trends found on TikTok and inject basic information about topics like nutrition and remaining healthy during the pandemic in short videos. This allows them to deliver information in an attention-grabbing way and to reach more younger audiences online. Dr. Isip-Tan herself has been posting about common endocrine diseases like diabetes and hyperthyroidism for many years now, and she is often told by her patients that they feel like they have already met even before seeing her in person because they have seen her speak in her videos online. Truly, the opportunities for medical professionals on social media are endless.

Revolutionizing the healthcare landscape in the time of COVID-19 has inspired many social medical professionals “Social MDs” to promote healthy discussions in addressing misconceptions and educating the masses on the SARS-COV2 virus and the COVID-19 Vaccines. The investigators, Dr. Iris Thiele Isip Tan, Dr. Geoffrey Solano and Dr. Jerome Cleofas, intended to study COVID-19-related misinformation circulating on Facebook and Twitter from January 1, 2020 to March 23, 2020 (when the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was enacted). This study is a recipient of the 2020 University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health Faculty Research Grant.

Pulling People Apart

This openness and freedom to express is undoubtedly welcome, but it has also invited new challenges to arise. As “The Endocrine Witch” Facebook page grew, one glaring issue that Dr. Isip-Tan has had to contend with is the vitriol in the comments sections of her posts. If some of Dr. Isip-Tan’s followers disagree with her opinions, they would leave nasty comments on her posts. There are also many who advocate for unproven alternative treatments and exploit others just to sell their products, and this is not exclusive to people in the comments. Dr. Isip-Tan has observed the rise of “physician influencers” who accept offers to promote products on their social media pages. She says that the issue is conflict of interest as sometimes the posts are not declared to be paid endorsements. These “influencers” end up contributing to the information epidemic, or “infodemic,” that continues to plague social media with its propensity for false and inaccurate information. This could lead to potentially dangerous consequences for people who don’t know any better. One could wonder why some medical professionals have become contributors to the infodemic. With the endless possibilities of social media and with how easy it is to go viral, medical professionals must remember to practice care and responsibility with their content. After all, primum non nocere.

UPCM Social Media Guidelines

One of the ways to minimize and avoid the misuse of social media is by crafting social media policies. The University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM) has its own social media guidelines, outlining topics such as posting on personal and institutional accounts, protecting patient privacy and confidentiality, and maintaining professionalism online. Dr. Isip-Tan headed drafting the guidelines, and it involved a lengthy process of examining the school culture, learning from other social media policies from other institutions, consulting students, administration, and even seeking legal opinion.

Dr. Isip-Tan believes that academics everywhere should have a presence online as they could play a vital role in disseminating information as well as in aiding the branding and outreach of their respective institutions. To concur with a similar point made by Dr. Daniel Cabrera as mentioned by Dr. Isip-Tan, clinician educators have the responsibility to make knowledge accessible and impactful in their respective communities. While the UPCM guidelines are not full-fledged policies yet, it still can serve as a guide to encourage productive and responsible use of social media without hindering freedom of expression.

A Braver, Newer World Online

The climate on sites such as Facebook and Twitter has grown into one that is much different from how it started out. Social media has evolved into a bigger biosphere teeming with more activity than ever before; with information campaigns, discussion threads, and many more kinds of online engagement previously unheard of. This evolution of social media also displays the immense power that it now holds. With the influence that medical professionals hold through the opportunities available to them on their social media platforms, they should also remember the oft-quoted movie cliche, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Dr. Isip-Tan hopes that healthcare professionals on social media can help fight against the infodemic and at the same time further the practice of evidence-based medicine by giving more attention to online research. She also hopes that instead of being “physician influencers,” more physicians can instead practice health marketing which, as defined by the CDC, involves creating and delivering health information and practices using customer-centered and science-based strategies to promote health. Health literacy is an area that deserves greater attention, and with more doctors like Dr. Isip-Tan around on social media, millions of people could gain much insight about their health.

Medical practitioners, and even medical students too, have the golden opportunity to help solve the problems caused by the infodemic by fulfilling this newfound duty to use social media responsibly. Amidst all the noise that one can come across online, medical professionals should remember that they have the power to make a difference in the lives of many - even with just a single click.