I sit down at the kitchen table with my coffee and morning paper, Pittsburgh’s Tribune Review. The headline that catches my eye reads, “Coroner begins to post notices on Twitter, Facebook.” Apparently, Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania, is the first county in the state to release public information via social-media outlets. Companies, organizations, and individuals are utilizing social-media outlets in increasing numbers. The amount and variety of health-care information available to the public is staggering.

Merriam-webster.com defines social media as forms of electronic communication, such as websites for social networking and blogging, through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content such as videos. Social media includes not only social-networking sites such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com, but also YouTube.com (a video-sharing website), Flickr.com (a photo-sharing website), Wikipedia.com (an information-sharing website) and many more.

The use of social media in health care has both benefits and drawbacks. One cannot deny the clear advantage of the speed at which information may be dispersed to many recipients simultaneously. Financial rewards also may be realized in the form of saved postage fees, reduced use of office supplies such as paper and ink, and even a need for fewer personnel. Convenience is a huge advantage as well: You can access information from wherever you are through your cell phone, laptop computer or tablet computer.

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One disadvantage of social media for clinicians is that we must be very careful about what we “post” on these sites. You never want to disclose private health-care information about your patients; HIPAA violations are serious. We must also be careful when posting personal information about ourselves. How much do we really want our patients to know about us? We need to keep in mind that what we post may be permanent and traceable back to us.

We also must be careful about trusting the information we get from social-media sites. We have to let our patients know that just because something is out there on the Internet does not make it true. According to one article, “How America Searches Health and Wellness,” 34% of consumers use social media to search for health information.

We need to guide our patients toward online sources that provide reliable health information such as the National Library of Medicine; MedlinePlus, the CDC, and the Mayo Clinic. I personally get texts from the CDC containing health information that pertains to my age and gender. 

Not only is social media here to stay, but continues to expand at a rapid pace. When patients come to the office with a medical complaint or a question about their medications, most have already searched the Internet— including social-media sites — for answers and often are ready to accept that information as the complete truth. The clinician should listen to what the patient has learned and steer him or her in the direction that best suits that patient’s personal health-care needs.

Debra Clements Coats, RN, BSN, MSN, NP-C, is employed in internal medicine at New Stanton Primary Care in New Stanton, Pa.