It has been a few weeks since a patient first complimented me on my Instagram page.
It was, she said, informative.
Informative is probably the last word most people would associate with Instagram, the photo-sharing social media platform known more for pet pictures and food adventures than trustworthy health information. But my page is all about my clinical role as an interventional gastroenterologist focused on endoscopic weight-loss treatments.
I was pleased to hear my patient liked my page, but even more pleased that she did a thorough Google search to verify my credentials before making an appointment to come see me.
Just a few years ago, I was stunned to encounter a patient in a New York City emergency room who was sick because she stopped taking medication for her heart condition on the basis of something she heard from a television talk show.
That was when I realized how much medical "knowledge" some patients get from TV or the internet rather than from their doctor. Even the terminology used in describing social media hints at how easily we consume the "feeds" of online "influencers," some of whom may wear white coats and medical scrubs. Some offer solid advice. Others do not.
In addition to physicians, numerous nurses, dietitians, dentists, optometrists, chiropractors and naturopathic doctors are vying to become the latest "health influencer" on Instagram and other platforms. Some share their career journeys while others educate on medical topics. Attracting followings in the tens or hundreds of thousands, these influencers have the potential to impact public health and public opinion of health care.
Popularity should not be mistaken for credibility, however. For instance, many of these professionals have earned doctorate degrees, and so they can call themselves "Doctor" – though some may not be medical physicians. Others who don't even have a college degree call themselves doctors.
Instagram and other social media platforms currently have no built-in verification methods to screen the legitimacy of medical professionals online, so your only defense is further research.
Advertisers have long capitalized on the public trust of those who appear to be medical professionals, using their images to promote a variety of items ranging from weight-loss teas to skincare products. Yet the benefits and long-term effects of such products haven't been vetted by clinical trials. The legitimacy and industry ties of influencers hawking these products are not readily apparent, and disclosures of their relationships are not enforced on social media.
For all these reasons, my colleagues and I helped create the #VerifyHealthcare hashtag campaign to promote transparency among health influencers on social media. We want readers to verify that influencers are worthy of their trust. And we want medical influencers to disclose their own qualifications. Hundreds of health influencers have since supported transparency by participating in the hashtag campaign on Instagram. However, a hashtag movement only serves to highlight one of many concerns regarding the ethical use of social media by health professionals.
Established health professionals are often reluctant to use social media as a communication tool, and some may even be prohibited by their employers from building their online presence. Forward-looking institutions and practitioners should seek not to avoid social media, but to use it appropriately in order to offer valid, valuable health information on the platforms our patients are using every day.
Social media has the potential to spread health knowledge and heighten awareness. But until then, it should be balanced by checking the accuracy and sources of medical information. Go to the sites of medical centers and schools you already know and trust. If you're in doubt about professional credentials, check a website such as certificationmatters.org, which was just launched by the American Board of Medical Specialties.
Before built-in verification tools are developed for social media platforms, we all will have to do some extra homework and use some extra scrutiny, rather than simply trusting "Dr. Instagram."
Austin Chiang, M.D., M.P.H., is the director of bariatric endoscopy and chief medical social media officer at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia.