In an exam room sits a quiet 15-year-old female, furiously texting on her iPhone, awaiting her annual sports physical. Her mom is patiently sitting in the waiting room to give her daughter some privacy. The doctor steps in, completes the physical, and asks if there is anything the teen wants to talk about. The girl shakes her head “no,” and they say goodbye as she heads back to meet her mom.
From the outside, this scene might look like a wasted opportunity for the physician to have a confidential discussion about sensitive health topics with her shy patient. But this teen didn’t walk away empty handed. Before the physician walked through the exam room door, the teen had taken a photo of the whiteboard with a link to a blog titled “Am I ready for Sex?” and a Twitter handle to follow–all posted by the physician earlier that day.
Communicating health messages with the teenage population has always been a struggle for adolescent healthcare providers. In my personal experience, attempts to get the majority of teens to engage in conversations about their health during a 15-minute visit quickly leads to deadpan silence. With most providers at least a decade older than their patients, it becomes imperative to adopt communication strategies that are relevant to teens, but many healthcare providers are still resistant to join the digital world. According to recent data, physicians are engaging in social media for personal reasons, but don’t use it professionally.
Will teens participate in the conversation online?
Since there’s no doubt teens are spending significant time on social media, this big question remains: should adolescent health care practitioners invest their time in trying to connect with their younger patients via social media? Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin- Madison found that teens were receptive and enthusiastic about having more ways to receive sexual health information digitally from trusted medical sources. Teen participants in the study indicated that information provided in a true interactive format would be more beneficial than traditional websites that read like textbooks.
Social media offers the clinician the opportunity to listen to questions and to discover trends in teen health that might not make it to the office. Online platforms allow teen patients to ask anonymous questions in a non-threatening format. Allowing for patient questions and answers are a way to supplement conversations in the examination rooms. Bridget Garmisa, a Philadelphia based pediatric/ adolescent Nurse Practitioner agrees that the inclusion of social media can be an important adjunct to traditional patient care. “It won’t replace the conversations that you need to have with your patients, but giving advice and reputable information online is perfect for the patients who want more information on their own time.”
As in any social media strategy, effective communication should be adapted to patient demographics. Psychologist Lucy Wimpenny, PhD, finds that “teens are looking for information from people they trust, but it has to relate to their immediate and specific needs.” She points out that a 14-year-old urban teen might have entirely different information needs from a suburban minority teen. Listening to conversations within the specific patient population will help you identify the appropriate topics and social media channels that optimize reach to this target audience.
Although online communication may be the smart and convenient way to reach patients, practitioners still need to practice ethically and responsibly. Protecting patient confidentiality is still a number one priority for all clinicians engaging in social media. HIPPA guidelines indicate that digital communication falls under the same standards for protecting patient privacy. Adopt a practice of never discussing any specific patient cases as examples in your online conversations, and don’t accept personal “friend” requests from patients.
It’s time for healthcare professionals to move towards a safe, strategic, and social health dialogue.