21/01/2013 12:06 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Healthy Dose of Social Media Is Just What the Doctor Ordered

The Royal College of General Practitioners met late last year to discuss the role of social media in the medical industry, the use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook by GPs, and how they may benefit both the clinician and the patient. For avid tweeters in the medical industry, it is well known just how useful the resource as become.

The medical industry certainly has its 'technophiles' and 'luddites', only too well demonstrated by the need for an explanation between the differences between Facebook and Twitter, coinciding with a unique hash tag for the event trending on the day of the RCGP conference.

There are huge benefits to be gained from the use of social media. The access sites like Twitter provide for GPs greatly enhances medical networking, marketing of resources, and real-time engagement in current clinical discussions. However, has the surge in social media use by medical professionals resulted in positive outcomes for patients and the relationship with their GP?

Twitter may provide an avenue for patients to communicate with their GP, particularly to highlight the patient experience or to provide feedback. It is also a forum that allows GPs to improve their patient involvement and indirectly, provide better healthcare. Twitter is also a great avenue for patients to communicate any issues they may have with their GP, who can direct them to the appropriate channels where they can be discussed privately.

Health communities in the UK have a history of being fragmented, and as the NHS change model comes in to effect, forums such as Twitter offer an avenue to build a network of shared interests and provide support and encouragement for those who may have previously felt isolated.

However, many disagree and say that Twitter is not ideal for GPs and is not the best forum for patients to provide feedback. While Twitter may decrease the communication gap between GPs and patients, it is also not the place for direct medical advice or for patients to voice their concerns about their condition or treatment. The issue remains that Twitter provides anonymity, along with the ability to be confrontational without an emotional consequence. Many GPs feel that the freedom and liberty to discuss professional relationships may result in negative outcomes for both themselves and their patients.

When asked to explain the differences between Facebook and Twitter, the RCGP panellists described Facebook as similar to a living room and Twitter more like a bar. For those reticent about social media, this analogy may well act as a deterrent as many prefer to keep their social lives separate from their professional. Furthermore, distinctions between online friends and real friends also prove to be confusing. For many tweeters, their followers often become friends, as chair of the RCGP Dr Clare Garuda explained circumstances in which she has forged real-life friendships from those that initiated online. This of course does not mean that all patients who follow their GPs on Twitter should automatically become friends. The use of the term 'social networking' appears to be the limiting factor for GPs contemplating the Twittersphere.

There is clearly a very faint line between real friendship and networking when it comes to Twitter and it is important not to blur the two. Dr Garuda emphasised during the RCGP conference that she enforces her own 'rules' on the use of social media but to above all 'respect your profession, respect yourself, and have fun'.