A new survey says patients are taking to social media to discuss issues previously confined to a doctor's office

By Paige Fowler
June 29, 2015
Corbis Images

Well, this gives new meaning to the saying, "The doctor will see you now." Many Americans would like to be able to communicate with their physician via email and Facebook messages, according to a new study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. In fact, the survey of more than 4,500 Americans found that in 37 percent of patients emailed their M.D. and 18 percent contacted their doc via Facebook.

It's all about convenience, says study author Joy Lee, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Many people are already on email and Facebook for much of the day, so contacting their doctor via these modes just seems like a natural extension of how they already communicate," she explains.

If more physicians were open to corresponding in these ways, convenience could be a big benefit too. "For many patients, communicating with their doctor isn't as easy as they would like," Lee says. Calling the clinic can involve rounds of phone tag (not fun), but email and Facebook allow you to chat when it works best for you. Plus, email and social media are easy to use, don't require a separate login to remember (we have enough passwords to memorize, thank you very much!), and, to, an extent, can allow you a record of your communication. (But first, are you communicating effectively? 10 Questions Your Doctor Is Too Afraid to Ask You.)

Of course, there are downsides: "Any time patients and doctors exchange health information, there are concerns about how best to protect the patients and their information," Lee says. What happens if you accidentally email the wrong person with sensitive health information? You could also reach out to your doctor with an urgent issue and he or she may not respond immediately (note: This is not how you should communicate urgent health messages!). From a doctor's POV, there are also concerns as to how this increased access would impact their time, productivity, and reimbursement. (How Safe Are Your Electronic Medical Records?)

Still, using technology as a mode to bring you closer to your doc has come a long way. "Many doctors and health care organizations now do have electronic health record systems with some sort of messaging feature in a secure environment. Patients can access their own health information and track their health progress online," Lee says. So if your physician isn't so open to being Facebook friend, that could be another option.

Open to communicating with another health care professional besides your go-to doc? Smartphone apps such as Doctor On Demand (free; itunes.com) and HealthTap (free; itunes.com) enable you to video conference with board-certified physicians who can diagnose and treat common ailments. (Plus, check out more High Tech Healthcare Changing the Doctor's Office.)


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