UF researcher co-edits new book on social media in medicine

Book takes a closer look at the role social networking plays in health care

Erik Black, Ph.D. Photo by Maria Belen Farias

First, tweet no harm.

According to a 2011 Nielsen report on Internet traffic, Americans spend nearly one-quarter of their online lives using social media, so it’s no surprise sites like Facebook and Twitter have become a part of the digital health care landscape. This is the focus of “Social Media in Medicine: The Impact of Online Social Networks on Contemporary Medicine,” a new book co-edited by a University of Florida College of Medicine researcher that takes a closer look at the role social networking plays in health care today and the opportunities it offers for the future.

Until now, most of the research into social media and medicine has revolved around issues of protecting patients’ privacy and professionalism — issues related to how health care providers and medical students should behave online. These topics are still a big part of the book’s content, which is geared toward health professionals and students, but the text takes a broader view, covering everything from ethical dilemmas to how social media affects clinical practice.

“I think what we have done here is to continue a conversation that has already been started,” said Erik Black, Ph.D., a UF assistant professor in the colleges of Medicine and Education and co-editor of the book. “Social media is no longer a novelty. It’s time to push the conversation beyond issues of professionalism into new boundaries.”

Individuals, health care providers and health institutions are already using social media in both beneficial and potentially worrisome ways. Patients have formed online communities using social networking, as have physicians, in some cases raising privacy issues. Even Facebook itself entered the arena just last month, adding a tool that allows users to update their organ donor status and linking them to online registries.

Overall, the goal of the book to get people talking and thinking about the potential applications and implications of social media use in health care, said Beatrice Boateng, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who co-edited the book. Because social media is relatively new, in many ways it’s a vast frontier, open for exploration with few established rules, apart from not harming patients by violating their privacy.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” she said. “The whole point is just to get our wheels turning. We don’t have a consensus on the best way to do this. One of the authors mentions how she has friended her patients on Facebook and checks on them regularly, while others suggest not to do this.”

One of the issues Black writes about in the book is the potential for geolocation, the use of place in social media. As most smartphones now have GPS capabilities, social media apps have been around for a while that update users where their friends are at any given moment. For example, Facebook users are familiar with the ubiquitous stream of posts alerting them when Friend X checks in at Starbucks or the bookstore at any given moment.

Black is interested in how place and location can be used to benefit health and the practice of health care, either by influencing users who constantly see their friends checking in at the gym, or linking people to health resources closest to them, or even helping health institutions better manage equipment and resources within a hospital.

“Social media is a tool,” Black said. “We are no longer afraid of it, so how then can we use it to enhance our own education, our patients’ education and their lives? Is this just entertainment or is there more to it than that? Overall, the verdict is still out.”

“Social Media in Medicine” was published by New Forums Press.