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How Does Social Media Impact Perceived Provider Professionalism?

Patients perceive provider social media accounts with purely patient education material with more provider professionalism than profiles with personal content.

As social media continues to permeate the healthcare space, providers are increasingly creating their own professional profiles to connect with patients and offer better patient education. It is important that clinicians maintain provider professionalism by keeping their own personal posts to a minimum, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan.

Social media and general online resources have become important topics in healthcare. Patients are researching their providers and individual healthcare concerns, and the Internet is becoming a central location for doing so.

Specifically, Twitter has emerged as a place for patients and providers to discuss healthcare and patient education.

“In a 2014 study, the Pew Research Center showed that 74 percent of Americans on the Internet use social media sites,” the researchers explained. “Furthermore, one-third of Americans use social media for health care discussions, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

Twitter allows providers to post patient education materials, the researchers pointed out. Healthcare organizations and professionals can also use the social media platform for disaster alerting and response, chronic disease management, and drug safety, among other uses.

Currently, about 90 percent of healthcare professionals use Twitter for personal use, and 67 percent of clinicians use Twitter for professional use, the researchers reported. However, there are few guidelines stating how healthcare professionals should disseminate information on these platforms.

The researchers consulted female patients in an OB/GYN practice at the University of Michigan to better understand patient perceptions of clinician social media use. Specifically, the study sought to determine if provider profiles with only educational tweets were viewed as more professional than those with a mix of educational and personal content. The researchers were also interested in the impact gender has on perceived tweet professionalism.

The researchers surveyed 134 adult female patients about fictitious clinician Twitter profiles. The team randomly assigned each patient to one fake profile that either posted exclusively educational content, exclusively personal content, or a mix of both. There were also options for female and male profiles for each of those content categories.

Ultimately, the surveys showed that profiles displaying exclusively patient education materials were viewed as most professional, regardless of provider gender. Female, education-only profiles received a 4.24 out of five on the professionalism scale. Male profiles with the same content scored 3.85 out of five.

“This is consistent with what would have been expected based on the traditional definition of medical professionalism outside the context of social media,” the researchers reported.

Female provider profiles received higher mean professionalism scores compared to male profiles with the same content categorization. For example, female profiles with mixed professional and personal content scored 3.38 out of five, compared to 3.24 for males. Female profiles with only personal content scored 3.68 compared to 2.68 for males.

It was interesting that female profiles with exclusively personal content scored higher on the professionalism scale compared to female profiles with mixed content, the researchers reported.

“This discrepancy may be driven by the fact that the patient population surveyed was all female and these patients may have identified more with the persona of the female provider with personal tweets, resulting in a higher professionalism score,” the research team explained. “This may also explain why the female provider profiles had higher mean professionalism scores when compared to the male provider profiles with the same content.”

In fact, the female-only study population proved one of the researchers’ biggest pitfalls, the group reported.

“The study was conducted in an obstetrics and gynecology clinic and all of the study participants identified as female,” the research team said. “This may have biased our finding that female providers were viewed as more professional since the patients may have identified more with providers of the same gender.”

These results help paint a better picture of how providers can build a more professional social media presence, a key goal for providers, the researchers said.

“When patients view a provider’s profile on a social media platform, they do not necessarily discern between whether the provider’s profile is for personal or business use,” the researchers pointed out. “In addition, it is difficult to control who may be able to view a given profile. Professionalism serves as the foundation of the patient-provider relationship.”

While further research is needed to understand how patients perceive other medical specialty social media accounts, this offers some information for improvement, the researchers said. Going forward, researchers should look at how patients view social media for other providers, as well as perceptions about digital interactions via social media.

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