How doctors can be social media ‘influencers'

Meet a chief medical social media officer.

Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, gets away with using social media at work. In fact, it's part of his job description.

Photo courtesy of Dr Chiang
Photo courtesy of Dr. Chiang

In 2018, Dr. Chiang became chief medical social media officer at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. While some physicians were early adopters of social media, medical and educational uses of these networks are only just becoming widespread, he said. “I think now is really when it's starting to take off. . . . We might even see it take off even more, especially with the rising generations of trainees,” said Dr. Chiang. “In some programs, it's become almost a requirement to get on Twitter and participate in the discussions there.”

Even those who use social media within medicine may not engage much with nonclinicians, however. “Part of the beauty of social media is how it indirectly impacts our lives and influences our decisions. That's the whole concept behind ‘influencers' out there,” said Dr. Chiang. “If we can go back to having that sort of impact on patients and the public, that would be really great.”

Dr. Chiang, who also directs Jefferson's endoscopic bariatric therapy program and is president of the new Association for Healthcare Social Media, recently spoke with ACP Hospitalist about why he wants to get more doctors on social media.

Q: How did you become chief medical social media officer?

A: Professionally, I started using social media, namely Twitter, a couple of years ago after spending some time with ABC News as part of their medical unit. At the time, they were hosting weekly Twitter chats, and that's when I realized that a lot of public figures and important representatives of organizations out there were jumping on these Twitter chats and having a productive discussion about certain health topics each week. . . . I started doing social media research by using social media data and also was live tweeting at conferences and participating in Twitter chats. From there, I was able to get on different committees within my field of gastroenterology, serving in this role of [public relations], social media, and member engagement. That's ultimately what led to this role, which came out of a discussion with our CEO, Stephen Klasko, MD.

Q: What do you do in this position?

A: The main role is reaching out to other health professionals in our system to get them on social media, so I have been speaking to various divisions and giving talks. The other thing is amplifying whatever messages our institution wants to amplify, so I help with rallying up all the social media heavy-hitters within our institution, and also helping to better define the internal social media policy.

My role there is still evolving. Initially, the charge was pretty straightforward: to get more health professionals on social media. But I think that's a challenging task because it requires an understanding of what the do's and don'ts are and how to use it effectively. Part of the reason why this society can be helpful in the future is that we'd like to define our best practices. . . . A lot of us don't have a marketing background or a communications background. Many of us have just learned by trial and error and asking each other and teaching each other.

Q: Can you share some of the social media lessons you've learned?

A: The first thing that most people come to me with are questions about patient interaction and patient privacy. That's not anything new, in that we have to be very careful about how we're interacting with patients, but I also feel that the way we communicate with patients is changing now. In the past, I think there was a hard stop, saying just don't have any sort of online interaction with patients, and you want to keep your social media presence separate in terms of personal versus professional. I think those lines, for me at least, are blurred because I want to make sure that what I'm putting out there professionally isn't just something that's so robotic and so professional that it seems like I'm marketing to someone. I genuinely want to share aspects of my life and humanize what I'm doing because, as we all know, trust has eroded in medicine and in health care. We can restore that trust by showing that we have the same struggles as our patients and we are trying to take care of our own health. Patient privacy [on social media] is also something that has yet to be fully defined, which is again where our society hopes to come in and provide some form of consensus.

Q: How did the Association for Healthcare Social Media get started?

A: After the [chief medical social media officer] role was created last year, I then had a hashtag campaign on Instagram called #VerifyHealthcare, and that was really highlighting misrepresentation [of health care credentials] on Instagram. One example I keep putting out there is the Medical Medium. . . . The guy has over 2 million followers at this point. He's backed by a lot of celebrities, and a lot of his claims are not really based on evidence. In fact, his bio on his website says that he gets his medical information from communicating with spirits. . . . Things that really have no scientific basis or mechanism behind it can be not only concerning to read coming from him, but in the comments, people try to explain away how that works. From [the #VerifyHealthcare campaign], that's what led to the creation of the Association for Healthcare Social Media, which we launched recently.

Q: What do you say to doctors who are reluctant to get involved in social media?

A: It's not right for everyone, [but] I think the more, the better. I think that being nervous is a normal sentiment. For me, even though I've been on several social media platforms, even adopting a new social media platform is nerve-wracking. I recently started on YouTube. I had been thinking about it for years, but to actually take that leap was challenging because it's a whole different time commitment, and being on video is very different than putting photos out there. That leap to Instagram was also a challenge because it was a step more than just putting text posts on Twitter. With every step of the way, I've had to just trust my instincts and go for it and give it a trial at the very least. For a lot of people, [the problem] is not just accidentally posting something they shouldn't be, but also the time commitment. Especially in academia, it's not entirely rewarded or encouraged to be spending time on social media or even contributing to lay health journalism, and I think that needs to change. What I've adopted as one of my charges is to see how we can incentivize what we're doing here.

Q: Do you think other hospitals should have positions like yours?

A: Yes, absolutely. In terms of a C-suite title, I'm probably the only one, and there have been some similar positions that have come up since. I've had folks who've reached out to me to try to develop similar roles at their institutions. For the most part, I think there are a lot of institutions out there that don't quite understand why this is necessary, and I'm very grateful that at Jefferson, they're forward-thinking and are open to having me come in and be a part of the media relations team because when it comes to the posts and the content that they're putting out there, I think things have to be vetted. . . . I think that some institutions rely so heavily on their media relations and communications teams, and sometimes the medical information out there may not be entirely accurate or presented in the right frame. So I think the more positions like mine, the better.

Q: What would you like to see from hospitalists on social media?

A: The general public might not even know what the role of a hospitalist is. There are several hospitalists who are active on social media who can lend a perspective to what a hospitalist does. I think it might clear up some confusion patients might have if they are hospitalized, like who exactly is dictating their care and what the difference is between their outpatient physician versus the hospitalist taking care of them. I think that's something patients should be better informed about.