03-10-2012: Royal College of GP’s Conference

In the virtual dimension there was much anticipation of RCGP conference Friday’s ‘concurrent stream D’. The ‘You and Social Media’ debate in Glasgow, with Dr Clare Gerada @clarercgp, RCGP Chair, newly dubbed the #hashtagwag; Glasgow GP Dr Margaret McCartney @mgtmccartney and RCGP’s e-learning Medical Director @DrBenRiley was heavily trailed on Twitter and Facebook. Doctors from across the UK, Europe and as far as Australia tweeted that they were attending live online by following the #RCGPsome hashtag during the debate. ‘Twitteratti’ were spotted in the room and a live Twitter feed was projected onto a screen and reflected in the discussion. This was declared the largest GP tweetup in history!

The number of doctors accessing Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other networks is known to be growing, led by the RCGP Chair’s enthusiasm for SoMe communication. But there are pitfalls the College is keen to ensure doctors think about and discuss. The findings of a six month project to develop a Social Media Highway Code* have been published in draft form to aid that discussion and share good practices.

The panel described how their use of social media keeps them connected to current issues and how others were able to connect with them much more easily through blogs and online discussion. Equally, delegates messaged that access to journalists and public figures meant they are directly involved in health policy debates. The immediate educational value of access to professors, good quality health journal articles and professional discussion via Twitter was a common theme and significant peer-to-peer support was evident via social networking. Dr Clare Gerada described how some “absolutely horrible” online personal comments were far outweighed by direct support from GP colleagues. “Twitter is a way for docs to support each other,” said Dr Margaret McCartney, “share what we’re doing and encourage.” But she warned that her own questioning of some theories published online had met with surprising vitriol from individuals not expecting cross-examination. Dr Ben Riley talked of the experiences of some doctors outlined in the Social Media Highway Code, who fell foul of making very public, insensitive comments which were picked up by mainstream media: “This is one of the things doctors need to be aware of… Never say anything on a social media network that you’re not happy to have plastered on a billboard.”

Whilst many doctors expressed having great fun using social media, there were calls for more awareness amongst the profession of defamation pitfalls and the legalities of anonymity combined with social media patient conversation record-keeping, highlighting public-private tensions for some. How to respond to a potential ‘red flag’ situation in an informal online arena was thought to be ethically difficult. Whilst Clare Gerada’s comment to the conference that she gives her email and mobile phone contact details out to patients received a mixed response from the floor. A straw poll showed around a dozen in the room agreed it was a good idea. By comparison, ten times as many (by my reckoning) disagreed and a good many weren’t sure, with some doctors telling us they would be wary after experiencing inappropriate personal contact from patients. @DrWillMurdoch declared running a surgery every week via email and others reported advertising flu clinics and having Facebook business pages for their surgery had improved services to their patients, but @benjackson101 reported “we’ve put our practice on Facebook and Twitter but patients are not interested.”

We were teased by some interesting statistics: @DrBenRiley reports: “Had >1000 tweets & >90 forum posts on #RCGPSoMe but

By now, chairing the debate, I was juggling digital balls, experiencing sensory cortex over-stimulation. This was a truly interactive, exciting way to discuss and receive honest, live feedback, surely a true reflection of the SoMe values. A few minutes into the hour our discussion was trending no1 in the UK. We began receiving comments from doctors in Spanish (I wished I could read them!), from Bucharest, Portugal, New Zealand and rural Australia; ‏@SallyCockburn was “*waving frantically* from Melbourne”, singing the praises of international GP collaboration. ‏@Shingle_beach summed it up for quite few: “I’m not at the conference but feel I’m there through the power of the hashtag!” By now trending worldwide on Twitter, the projected tweet feed was moving so fast I could hardly reflect the comments in the discussion before they were replaced with more.

So could the use of these powerful, global social media sites by healthcare organisations help them achieve better services for patients or even greater patient involvement? The evidence is that in a growing number of areas it is. Comments from the floor included examples of trusts already using Facebook to direct people to services and give them access to good health information, with popular messages going viral quickly and directly to a widespread community. Well publicised examples of doctors realising patients were suicidal by checking their Facebook sites and intervening before crises were highlighted. Internationally, we heard, doctors are reaching individuals in rural parts of Africa and Asia via extensive mobile phone networking, where other technologies don’t exist, offering advice and crucial contact. And feedback from UK patients to doctors and trusts online via the main networks is beginning to be gathered. “Twitter is the means to building communities, not the end” commented @nazia252. But with many trusts blocking social networking sites on their internal networks, their creative use in patient and professional avenues is made difficult.

Some doctors in the room wanted a more basic introduction to social media outlets; the how’s and why’s. It was difficult in the Twitter firestorm to ensure that doctors not engaged already with SoMe weren’t excluded and that’s something which needs to be addressed. It’s likely some training will follow as a result but an immediate taster was given online by @PeteDeveson via @MillyMoo With examples of training support and CPD via social networks already evident, ‘should the use of social media now be included in the curriculum for trainees?’ asked @GP_Trainee. Repliers gave a resounding ‘yes!’ and debated that digital age trainees probably didn’t need to be taught the basics, but that some direction in using SoMe professionally, along with teaching for earlier generations of doctors should be given. I’d say the Social Media Highway Code is a good starting point.

It’s addictive, this real-time communication thing. It can’t replace face-to-face consultations, but think of the possibilities for public health and professional development if it can be this much fun!?

Sharon Alcock is a health journalist and the founder of which supports health sector digital communication. She tweets as @LimeandGinger

See the debate Storyfied by Doctors: @Richard_GP :

@DrBenRiley :

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