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Doctors on Social Media: Why Are Digital Opinion Leaders Using Social Media?

On April 22, 2020, two Bakersfield, California physicians from Accelerated Urgent Care—Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi—recorded and published an impromptu press conference. They wanted their opinions about the novel coronavirus known. The video quickly went viral, amassing 4.3 million views in a week. For over an hour, the two doctors explained their views: that lockdown is a bad idea, that COVID-19 response czar Dr. Anthony Fauci is not a credible authority because he had not seen a patient in twenty years, and that the virus had spread widely in their community undetected yet did not force the hospitalizations that Dr. Fauci expected.

Drs. Erickson and Massihi held controversial opinions, no doubt. The point of this article is not to critique or confirm their views, but rather to glean a valuable lesson from how these two physicians disseminated their views. By recording a video and sharing it with their social media followers (who in turn shared it with their followers) their opinions quickly and widely spread.

How Doctors Shared Their Opinions Before Social Media

The traditional way for doctors to share data or insights from their work is to run a study, write a paper about it, get it published in a peer-reviewed journal, and then present their paper at a forum where a couple dozen (or fewer) other healthcare practitioners (HCPs) attend. If a physician lacks the funding or free time to publish, they may write an analysis of another doctor’s study and then pursue speaking opportunities to share their views on the topic. Either way, very few if any members of the general public ever hear their opinions.

What made the approach Drs. Erickson and Massihi took so different was not only their use of social media to share their views, but their belief that their opinion on COVID-19 mitigation measures was in the best interest of the general public. They used social media to advocate for a different treatment paradigm.

Frankly, given these two physicians’ divergent views and the ensuing backlash, there was probably no process that could have led to their opinion being shared the traditional way. If they had written a paper, it’s doubtful that it would have passed peer review. If by some miracle it had, they would have to get their presentation of the paper scheduled at a conference three years from now—the soonest a spot might be available. But the novel coronavirus is spreading now, so the public needs to hear from them now, went their reasoning. 

Despite social media’s reach, it does not displace the benefit of peer review. When an article is published in a journal, other doctors—the peer reviewers—have essentially said, “Yes, this is legitimate. I agree. It looks like the author followed the right procedures.” All of a sudden, the article is not one person’s opinion, but ten people consider the perspective valid. Still, as Drs. Erickson and Massihi’s viral video shows, if a physician disagrees with the mainstream opinion, they are invariably fact-checked by other doctors. This is an example of the informal peer review process that is social media.

Besides the ability to share disparate views, what other reasons do doctors have for using social media? 

5 Reasons Doctors Use Social Media

Typically, HCPs who are considered digital opinion leaders (DOLs) share their opinions on social media for five reasons.

1. Advocacy

Doctors who want to advocate for something such as a change in a treatment paradigm use their social media platform. Within a matter of minutes, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people (including both the physician’s peers and the general public) can learn about whatever cause is on the doctor’s mind.

2. Education

Dermatologist and internist Dr. Steven T. Chen is known for “#tweetorials,” long Twitter threads exploring the latest clinical findings from his profession. These tweets mainly serve to educate his peers, but at times he and other doctors on social media turn their attention to the general public, sharing important information in the vernacular that everyone can understand.

3. Speed of Sharing

Millions of people in the United States and around the world knew exactly what Drs. Erickson and Massihi thought of Dr. Fauci within hours of the video’s publication on social media. No other medium offers the opportunity to instantly share a physician’s opinion, unreviewed and unverified as it may be, as social media does.

4. Controllable Platform

Unlike the traditional publication-to-presentation path, HCPs can control their social media platform. They don’t have to get peer-reviewed before sharing their perspective. The autonomy is an attractive alternative to the gatekeeping doctors must deal with in other areas of their profession.

5. Personal Satisfaction

While immeasurable, the personal satisfaction of sharing one’s perspective on current events makes social media worthwhile for many doctors. A physician who works at a local clinic may have no notoriety, but if they have 6,000 LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter followers combined, the doctor has the satisfaction of knowing that many people want to hear what they have to say, and on a consistent basis. 

It feels good to be heard, it feels good to start a lively discussion, and it feels good to educate. Because ultimately, all these improve the patient experience, which is the primary reason doctors turn to social media in the first place. And if you would like to learn how to engage with doctors on social media the ethical, compliant way, contact Acceleration Point today.

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