Health check: Dr Phil Kieran and other medics on role of social media in medicine

Health check: Dr Phil Kieran and other medics on role of social media in medicine

What role can doctors play in the social media age? Four GPs share their views with Ciara McDonnell.

LAST month, Dr Doireann O’Leary, a Cork-based GP with an Instagram following of over 26,000, took to her grid to chat about fertility. After being asked for the umpteenth time when she and husband — CUH specialist surgeon Stephen O’Leary — were planning to have children, Doireann decided to take a direct approach.

‘I’ve been open about the fact that fertility isn’t straightforward for me,’ she posted. 

‘I’m still often asked when I’m going to have children. I’ll continue to say that I don’t know when/if or how it’ll happen. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about it. I do think some people carry shame or embarrassment around the topic, where really there should be none at all. All there should be is kindness and understanding.’

Cork GP and popular Instagrammer Dr Doireann O’Leary
Cork GP and popular Instagrammer Dr Doireann O’Leary

Within minutes, her DMs started to fill up with women sharing their own fertility stories of loss, and IVF, and difficult pregnancies. Women she had never met were sharing their deepest pain and greatest sorrow because, for the first time, they felt seen. This is why she set up her blog (drdoireann.wordpress.com) and social media platform.

“When you are training as a GP, you learn that your role is a vital part of the community — out there, with the people,” she says.

We are almost an extension of the family — that’s the way a GP should be viewed. We are not doctors with white coats and stethoscopes, we are there on the ground with you and we want to help you as much as we can.

Doireann’s following on social media gives her a platform where she can share solid medical advice with a generation who seek counsel via social media. 

Through what she calls her ‘tutorials’, the GP advises her followers on everything from how to identify breast lumps to the importance of finding a reputable cosmetic surgeon.

With an audience mostly between the ages of 25 and 35, she is extremely aware of the importance of solid, evidence-based information.

“I was speaking about acne recently on Instagram,” she says. 

“A thing that really bugged me was that I see people spending lots of money on cosmetics that they believe are going to ‘fix’ them. My message is that actually, your GP can help you with a cream for about €25. I make it my business to reiterate to my audience that GP visits are critical and that your GP is a resource. We won’t think you are silly — we want to help you and we are there to help you.”

It’s here to stay

GP, RCSI lecturer, and consultant to RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, Dr Sumi Dunne, believes that efforts like Doireann’s are extremely welcome in today’s social media environment.

“We can’t be naive,” she says. “Social media is here to stay and there are lots of platforms on which information is being disseminated. I think what we have as medical practitioners is a responsibility to make sure that the information we are putting out is correct, that we are not over complicating it and also to say: ‘If there is a concern, please come into us’.

Dr Sumi Dunne uses social media in her teaching and practice, as well as to debunk myths and misinformation. Picture: Moya Nolan
Dr Sumi Dunne uses social media in her teaching and practice, as well as to debunk myths and misinformation. Picture: Moya Nolan

“Don’t just use a platform for all your medical information — it’s good to explore other options as well.”

Sumi uses Twitter as a tool to debunk the myths around certain areas of medicine. As a doctor who is very much pro-vaccination, she says that social media is a wonderful platform to circulate the evidence-based facts around vaccines.

Together with colleagues, I post articles that are evidence-based, all from the World Health Organisation, around vaccines working. I think it’s an important message for those of us who are involved in medicine and do have some followers to get that very robust medical evidence out there.

There is a worrying trend of misinformation being mistaken for fact across all platforms of social media, says Sumi.

“A series of tweets I put out a long time ago was around the pseudo-science around food,” she says. 

“There is a belief that one type of food having certain health benefits or following a particular diet might be associated with a cure. This is wrong and very damaging to a vulnerable group of patients. When you are unwell and you read these things and they sound great, you may not have the energy or the time to go and investigate whether it is factual information that is evidence-based. This is something that myself and my colleagues would be very robust in calling out.”

When a self-proclaimed healthcare professional made claims that following a certain diet would cure cancer, Sumi and her colleagues across all healthcare fields, had enough.

“It was very dangerous, both for us as medical professionals and the general public to read. There was a group of us together that called this out on Twitter; from well-accredited fitness trainers to well-accredited registered dietitians and people like myself. Interestingly, the post was taken down and the claims were pulled back. Those messages are very important for us to reinforce to the community at large.“

A blessing and a curse

Cork-based GP and co-presenter of RTÉ’s You Should Really See a Doctor, Dr Phil Kieran, sees social media as a blessing and a curse, saying: “I am very conflicted about social media.

“A large part of me wishes that it had never been invented. It can be very useful, but also incredibly detrimental. People can end up judging their own life by their social media interaction and that can cause a huge amount of damage — there have been a number of studies that correlate social media usage with anxiety levels and overall mood.”

Dr Phil Kieran, Washington Street Medical Centre, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
Dr Phil Kieran, Washington Street Medical Centre, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

From a medical standpoint, Phil says that it can be extremely difficult to debunk a medical myth on social media — and that oftentimes misinformation can appear more palatable and even more convincing.

“Take the anti-vaccine movement, which is one of the issues that gets under my skin more than most. The side that isn’t bound by fact or science or ethics can sound more definitive and convince. They are not accurate in what they say, but they can make a much more compelling argument across social media where people generally read the headline and nothing else.

Medical and health information doesn’t lend itself to brevity, so trying to cram something into a certain amount of characters can be very difficult.

The natural empathy that comes with being a GP doesn’t simply shut off, just because you are communicating on Twitter, and following up on DMs asking for medical consultations are commonplace for Phil.

“I find it very hard to tell someone who is in difficulty to go away,” he says. “I try to give good, solid, common-sense medical advice and always advise them to go to their doctor.”

The need to see your doctor face-to-face should be at the coalface of any social media interaction from medical professionals, he says. “I don’t really think that this movement towards telemedicine is real medicine. I think it’s very shallow and superficial.”

The need for direct contact seems all the greater for male patients. I tell him about about a recent conversation I had with my GP, who told me that 90% of men who come through her door will only tell her their problem as they are walking out of her surgery.

“There is a real term for that — it’s known in research as the doorknob consultation and there is a good body of research that shows that it’s the more important issue that the patient has come in with. I spend quite a lot of time trying to encourage my patients not to do it — always tell me.”

YouTube connection

When general practitioner and best-selling author (Self-Acceptance, published by Orion is out now) Dr Harry Barry made a series of YouTube videos about anxiety and overcoming panic attacks three years ago, he had no idea that they would resonate with people as strongly as they have. To date, his 13-minute video on overcoming a panic attack has had more 211,000 views, and people still contact him about it.

GP and best-selling author Dr Harry Barry.
GP and best-selling author Dr Harry Barry.

“You simply wouldn’t believe the number of people who get in touch with me to tell me how it has helped them,” he says.

The videos are an example of how Dr Barry believes that social media can help us to navigate this highly anxious world.

“Well structured, evidence-based videos where accredited healthcare professionals can share tips and insights into things like anxiety can be extremely helpful,” he says.

I would be slightly uneasy to use day-to-day social media as a means of trying to get health messages out, however. I am concerned that it is fraught with danger for both the person sending out the message and the person who is reading it. 

I understand the reasoning behind doctors taking to social media, though. We are finding it harder and harder to reach people via traditional channels because everybody is communicating via social media now.

Health promotion

Dr Doireann O’Leary remains convinced that social media is a platform where medical professionals can make a difference and become an essential component of the cyber community.

There remains some uncertainty about the place of social media within the medical community, but this, she says, is simply down to a lack of understanding.

“At the end of the day, our job is not just about treating disease or giving tablets, it’s about health promotion, and social media offers a wonderful platform for solid advice from the medical community.”

Dr Sumi Dunne agrees, advising those of us seeking a doctor to follow on social media to look for someone who is giving general, evidence-based advice.

“Qualified medical practitioners won’t be putting up personal medical advice to any individual on any social media platform, in order to preserve the pillars around the ethics of consultation.”

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