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Inside Dental Hygiene
June 2022

My Journey in Social Media

Be mindful of personal and professional boundaries

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH

Our daily lives have become increasingly intertwined with social media. Healthcare, an integral part of human society, is no exception. Over 40% of healthcare consumers are now using social media to find information about health-related issues. This increase is more prevalent among consumers between 18 and 24 than those aged 45 to 54, with 90% of 18- to 24-year-olds saying they use and trust social media information on healthcare.

As growing numbers of people are becoming engaged on social media, the medical industry has welcomed this trend, and it now includes these platforms when planning various healthcare initiatives. But while social media opens doors to many benefits for both dental healthcare professionals (DHCPs) and patients, its use is not without drawbacks.

Healthcare providers and patients alike feel the effects of social media's newfound influence on our daily lives and in the industry. DHCPs use social media as a platform to gain new information, exchange ideas, and discuss healthcare policy and practice matters. They can also use it to promote healthy habits, engage with the public, and educate and interact with patients, colleagues, students, and other healthcare providers. Social media is also a tool for DHCPs to build their professional network, raise awareness of news and discoveries, inspire patients, and disseminate important health information.

The downside, however, is that social media can also serve as a conduit for spreading inaccurate or poor-quality information, resulting in tarnished professional reputations, violations of patient privacy, and licensure or legal issues. The questionable quality and reliability of health information posted to social media is a significant drawback since sources are often unknown, unreferenced, incomplete, or informal.

Best Practices for Social Media in Healthcare

Despite its issues, social media is a powerful tool for building an online presence and engaging with both professionals and patients. To help you use it more effectively and avoid its potentially disastrous consequences, here are some best practices I've learned throughout my journey.

Respect the patient's privacy. Before posting, always think carefully about your content: Is this something that patients or their family members can recognize as their own information? Respecting patients' confidentiality on social media is not only an ethical issue, but it is also a legal one.

Without consent, publishing sensitive information such as a patient's diagnostic or medical history violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Even if you post something that does not include the patient's name but provides details that could lead to the patient's identification, this is also considered a HIPAA violation. Generally, discussing patients on the internet is dangerous territory.

Now that phones are in everyone's hands and we are so accustomed to posting on social, we feel the need to share everything. As clinicians, we must be able to discern what should or should not leave the operatory. That includes taking your patient's conversations online to social media forums. It feels nice to vent, but always think before you post.

Safeguard against misinformation. Health-related disinformation can spread like wildfire, particularly online. Adding to the problem is the interactive nature of social media, which allows anyone to post content. When you're a healthcare practitioner on social media, people tend to trust and share whatever you post without any questions as they assume the source to be credible. Therefore, health-related content created or shared by healthcare professionals on social media must be accurate. Be mindful of quoting any unsubstantiated claim or statistic. When in doubt, refrain from distributing it. Sharing content with a link to a credible source is always the safest bet.

This advice holds true when we are interacting with our colleagues in forums. The amount of anecdotal information shared between professionals is, at times, concerning—especially when there is evidence to refute these claims or when the recommendations are based on outdated information. Clinical expertise is an integral part of our profession, but it should go hand-in-hand with an excellent PubMed search as well.

Be mindful of how you interact with others online. In the online world, the borders between professional and personal may be obscured. When you want to maintain a good reputation, it is best to keep your business and personal personas apart. The way you communicate with patients, whether in person or in the digital space, and the information you provide will ultimately reflect on your reputation and credibility. You may decide that what you post is what you want the world to see, and that is fine. Just know there may be consequences or backlash from your social media presence. As long as you are prepared for the response, good or bad, share away.

It is also best to avoid blunt, sarcastic, or aggressive remarks that may result in lasting wrong impressions, reflecting poorly on yourself or your organization. I won't pretend that I am always well-behaved on social media. I am sarcastic by nature and often have no patience for bad advice not backed by literature. I know I sometimes come off as rude or condescending. But I try to ask myself: do I want to understand their point of view, or do I want to make my point? Then I have to be content with my decision even if it has a negative outcome.

Remember that some posts exist forever. Keep in mind that anything you post on the internet will exist in perpetuity. Once something is on the internet, it may be almost impossible to undo or remove it altogether. An inappropriate post made in the heat of the moment can be screenshot by a stranger and may be searchable even years later.

Don't post anything you don't want to be brought up later or sent to someone like your boss, especially about a patient, colleague, or workplace. And stop incriminating yourself. I see so many posts from clinicians admitting that they are doing something wrong, often in the infection prevention space. Someone will post questions, and hundreds of commenters will incriminate themselves in their responses. Please be mindful because screenshots happen all the time.

A Professional Approach to Social Media

Social media serves as a platform for DHCPs to network professionally, to share and exchange medical information in ways and at a pace that has never been possible before. Common channels range from online forums to professional networking platforms that specifically cater to people within these professions. Topics of discussion on these sites go beyond the clinical realm and include subjects such as politics, ethics, practice management, and even dating.

On any social platform, being authentic and understanding your audience is key. Authentic content matters. It is the key to striking the delicate balance between being personable and professional. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to portray a pristine image that could sometimes be far from reality—being genuine matters more to your audience than mere perfection. It is also critical to recognize when you have made a mistake and take responsibility.

Don't be afraid to take your audience behind the scenes to get to know your clinicians and staff, educate them on pertinent topics, and show how much you care about the community.

The public increasingly uses the internet and social media to gain health knowledge. Due to its widespread usage in everyday life, it has become extremely prevalent and essential in the healthcare sector. Used sensibly and correctly, social media has the potential to improve individual and public health, offering real-time insights and ideas that can help healthcare professionals grow and advance in their profession. Used carelessly, the consequences to DHCPs can be detrimental. Therefore, as healthcare providers, it is our duty to advocate for and adhere to social media best practices moving forward.

About the Author

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH
Level Up Prevention

Client Success Manager
Charleston, South Carolina

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