Whether your doctor participates in social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, MySpace or other sites him or herself, or whether you can find patients' or their employees' comments through these media, you can learn a great deal about a doctor's attitudes, interests and personality through social media and networking sites.
When Doctors Participate in Social Media Themselves
Thousands of physicians participate in social media. Some are active bloggers. Others tweet (use Twitter). Some share their favorite links from other websites. Still others add photos, videos or podcasts to the various social media sites that address those formats.
And that's today. Tomorrow there will be even more tools that will entice doctors to share their personalities and attitudes online.
Social media is about people being themselves. Even when they think they are using their best behavior, over time their true personalities come out. That's why, when a doctor jumps into social media, you may learn more than you could relying only on a website full of credentials.
What clues can you find when the doctor participates? You'll want to uncover writing, videos, and podcasts that a doctor has initiated him or herself, and you'll want to uncover responses or comments they have made to others. The ability to give and take, agree or disagree, support or not, will give you insight into that doctor.
One point to be aware of: Doctors in large practices, or who are employed by hospitals or other facilities, may be constrained by their employers about what they may say. Many organizations have developed rules for employees who engage with social media. That means that you may not get the true personality picture.
Here's one way to figure out if that's the case: Once you find your doctor on a social media site, look for a profile to see if there is a disclaimer that says they are posting their own views, and not their employers'. Such a post means they will try not to run afoul of their employers.
Here are insights you might gain about a doctor through social media:
• Character, interests and attitudes: If you find a doctor who blogs, uses Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or other social media, and has done so over a period of time, you can make an assessment of his or her character, attitudes, interests and outlook on life.
Some doctors are angry - and their social media posts reflect that anger. A video rant on YouTube will let you know what upsets him or her. Others may be arrogant, and that may come through in their writing or speaking.
Conversely, some doctors are patient and good-natured. If she blogs, watch how she reacts when someone disagrees with her. Plenty of photos of a doctor's grandchildren or pets might help you see a softer side. Some believe that the more we understand, the better our relationship, so they post useful medical information.
Hobby choices might give you some insight, too. You might both like fishing or have season tickets to the theater, giving you something in common.
• Age: Choosing a doctor using age as a criteria may be important to you. Social media sites may help you figure out a doctor's age, not because she includes it in a post; rather because you may find photos, although you may not know how old those photos are.
• Language: I don't refer to the language a doctor speaks here, although if the doctor is not a native English speaker, you might be able to figure that out. Nor do I refer to med-speak - those medical words that we patients typically don't understand.
Instead I am referring to the use of profanity or four-letter-words. Use of obscenities or vulgarities in an informal, public setting can give you some clues about the character of the person who uses them.
• Spelling: ...doesn't count in social media! I know - those language purists among us may disagree, but social media is about being ourselves, not about business or formality. Further, some social media make it all but impossible to spell well because of character limitations. Tweeps (people who use Twitter) must learn to abbreviate effectively, or they will have trouble getting an entire point across.
• Politics: Some doctors share their political beliefs through social media, although you may have to determine those beliefs by reading between the lines.
Most political beliefs will have little effect on how a doctor delivers care to her patients. But some ideologies could affect your care. Example: If you can't afford health insurance, you may want to avoid any doctor who is very publicly vocal and continues to insist that healthcare reform be repealed.
• Culture and/or Ethnicity: Finding a photo, podcast or video of a doctor will help you determine ethnicity, and may give you a hint - although not a definitive one - about his or her culture.
There are no good reasons for using ethnicity to limit your choice of doctor.
There may be some cultural considerations, however. Examples: some cultures do not respect women. Others believe it is rude to look someone in the eyes during a conversation.
Conclusions about culture are very difficult to assess through social media. A doctor may have been born and raised in a very different culture than your assumption would assign, one that defies the standard beliefs. Unless the doctor has written specifically about political or cultural topics, or has reacted to someone else's work, then using social media to draw conclusions about that doctor's cultural beliefs might get in the way of a very good choice.
• Religion: You may also be able to determine religion from statements a doctor has shared through social media. Remember, your goal in choosing a doctor is mutual respect. If your religious beliefs conflict, then you will be not able to partner on some medical decisions, like blood transfusions, abortion or even organ donation.
No doubt there are other traits you can learn about a doctor through his or her use of social media. This is just a start.
It's also just a start as to what is available online about doctors. They aren't the only people providing clues - others are writing or speaking about them, too.