Is Social Media the Patient’s Friend?
by Brian Cayko, MBA, RRT
As a respiratory therapist, when I think about pulmonary disease management, the first thing that comes to mind is access to care. I like to think of gaining “access to care” as removing the barriers that prevent patients like you from acquiring care rather than what actually takes place during the scheduling process, such as finances, transportation, motivation, and support among other things.
In today’s highly technical world, however, respiratory therapists (RTs) cannot ignore the role that social media can play in the patient’s access to RTs’ services. In a world where my first grader talks to his great grandmother via a video chat on their tablets, it goes without saying that we need to examine how technology — specifically social media — can be used to increase your ability to reach out to us as respiratory therapists, as well as our ability reach out to you, our patients. However, it’s also important to consider the pitfalls associated with these new platforms.
Social media sites as a resource
Social media is defined as “websites and other online means of communication that are used by large groups of people to share information and to develop social and professional contacts.”1 In my daily life this means “resource.” Whether that is networking in order to share information or just checking up on a friend’s status, the truth is a lot of us gather information via social media. So why not utilize this technology to connect with and educate people as well?
Common social media platforms include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, just to name a few.
Facebook is a great place to start for the pulmonary patient and therapist alike. A recent survey found 67% of online Americans use Facebook;2 Twitter only garners 18%.3 Conducting a search for “COPD” results in an exhaustive list of pages and groups devoted to lung disease.
Whether you’re a patient or a therapist, I would recommend checking out the COPD Foundation’s website.4 That’s the same group that sponsors the DRIVE4COPD campaign responsible for quickly and efficiently screening people for the disease. A quick scroll down their timeline highlights linked resources for patients and therapists. You’ll also find fun stories and pictures of screening events and patient experiences.
COPD International has a page that is more directly focused to patients and has a strong interactive following.5 This page also serves as a great portal to many other COPD-related pages that will benefit patients. COPD International provides some informative posts explaining common disease misconceptions, pulmonary function testing, and medication usage. However, it truly shines in that it has the feel of an interactive support group for pulmonary patients. Each post has several comments from patients who share their experiences and offer encouragement to other subscribers.
Follow up these pages with a search using the term “pulmonary,” and you will locate numerous pages for fibrosis, embolism, hypertension, rehabilitation, sleep, respiratory medicine, pediatrics, and the list goes on. The fact of the matter is that if you are looking for more information or support on a respiratory-related matter, you will likely find a Facebook page and/or group to fit your need.
As we switch the focus over from Facebook to Twitter, be aware that there are fundamental differences between these two social media giants. First, though, let’s discuss what is similar. Both platforms provide “status updates” that allow their followers to be alerted to current and recent activity. A nice Twitter feature similar to the “share” function in Facebook is the ability to “retweet” or share an update you received with all of your followers. (I affectionately refer to my followers as my “tweeple.”)
The last feature I will mention is a type of search method that utilizes a hashtag. You can easily see what is popular (trending) right at the moment in the Twitterverse by placing your search term in the provided field. Your result will bring up any tweets that fit your term. Users frequently place the pound or number sign (#) in front of specific words in order to “tag” their update to that search term. Hashtagging has recently become a social phenomenon, so much so that Facebook has adopted the feature as well.
Without getting too deep, that is about where the similarities end. Twitter limits its updates to 140 characters. This effectively keeps the type of posts and content shared to brief announcements, activity reports, and links leading to more comprehensive content. This abbreviated style actually suits many busy professionals and patients better than the sometimes more lengthy posts on Facebook. It reduces the amount of scrolling through pages of non-vital social “fluff,” allowing subscribers to interact with the content only if they find it appealing. It is more of an “alert” system from which you receive the updates you have subscribed to.
For the patient, the COPD Foundation can be found at @copdfoundation, which provides news and events related to COPD and their efforts to improve the quality of life for those affected by the disease.6 Many local physicians, rehabilitation clinics, and support groups also utilize Twitter to quickly send updates to their patients to keep them current on changes in schedules and upcoming events happening in their hometowns.
LinkedIn is a great platform for bolstering your professional network and sharing resources among those “connections.” It will likely benefit the respiratory therapist more than the patient. However, I do recommend that patients look up their physicians and other health care providers on LinkedIn to get a professional overview of the practitioner they are seeing. A word of caution: These pages are not held accountable for the accuracy of their content. Most profiles on LinkedIn are set up by the individuals themselves. While the platform works well to provide peer-review endorsements, it is not an online review of the provider.
Finally, YouTube can be used by patients and respiratory therapists alike. It can provide a seemingly unending depth of educational material in a visually friendly format that most patients would enjoy. As a respiratory care educator, I have viewed hundreds of videos and often utilize the really good ones in the classroom. Of course, you have to be careful because these also are not held to any standard of accuracy; therefore, an unknowing patient could easily come across a video that makes unsupported claims. The credentialed respiratory therapist should be able to critically review the content and make an educated decision as to whether or not to use it for patient education purposes.
Not all Internet postings are true
Given the technological climate we now live in, it is no longer surprising to connect with every generation using some kind of social media. The platforms mentioned in this article serve as vehicles for educational resources, patient support, and social and professional networking. Each one has advantages that will benefit patients and respiratory therapists, but use caution. After all, despite popular belief, they can put things on the Internet that aren’t true.
Brian Cayko, MBA, RRT, is the director of clinical education in the respiratory care education program at Great Falls College, Montana State University, in Great Falls, MT.