In a recent survey of MDsearch physicians, 67% confessed to being regular Facebook users. Surprised? We were too. The idea of a busy physician taking time to update a status or write on someone's wall...well, it's hard to imagine. But when you consider that Facebook has over 250 million users and half a million people are signing up every day...well, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that physicians would be part of the trend.
Facebook began as a networking site for students, but now, the majority of its users (two-thirds) exceed college age. In fact, the over 35 age group is the fastest growing group of new users. Facebook is constantly evolving – the audience, the interface, the applications - and so is the way people are using it. It's no longer simply a way for friends and family to share photos or play an online game; these activities are still happening of course, but additionally, people are using Facebook as a tool to market themselves or their businesses. They're using it to network professionally, to organize groups, and to facilitate discussions.
The results of the MDsearch.com survey suggest that most physicians are still primarily using Facebook for personal use – connecting with friends and family. However, this too seems to be changing. A search for doctors and physicians on Facebook results in over 1,000 pages, applications, events, and groups – all of which indicate that physicians are starting to use Facebook to reach out to both consumers and each other.
Over 500 physician groups on Facebook have been created by users to facilitate medical discussions and promote the sharing of health related information. A group can be open for anyone to join, or it may be set up to include members by invitation only. The purpose of an open group such as "Physicians for Human Rights" would be entirely different from a closed group like "Stanford Hospital Physicians." One is intended to increase awareness and/or facilitate change while the other is used for communicating privately among individuals with a confirmed connection.
Physician groups can also serve to lend moral support to one another through sharing stories and experiences and offering advice. While sites like Sermo offer increased exclusivity (an extensive registration process requires verification of your state license or hospital or practice ID), Facebook has the ability to facilitate similar discussions, therefore providing the opportunity to integrate the personal and the professional on one site.
Physicians can also use Facebook as a marketing tool. For example, a private practice physician might create a Facebook page for his or her practice. It could introduce the staff, highlight press coverage of the practice, offer general health advice, and share interesting links from around the web – all in an effort to interact with current patients and attract new ones.
A facility's Facebook page may also be used for recruiting purposes. A physician seeking a new position can view the page to get to know a potential employer. Likewise, employers may use Facebook to check up on potential candidates, so it's important to control your privacy settings to limit what you want employers (and patients) to see.
Facebook has the potential to radically change the way you interact with both your patients and other physicians. One day you might reach out to your Facebook physician group for advice on a specific case, or you could follow up with a patient through a Facebook message or Facebook chat. You could even connect with a future employer on Facebook. Facebook is changing the way all of us interact, but exactly what that means for you as a physician remains to be seen.