By Erik L. Ridley, AuntMinnie staff writer

October 8, 2014 -- Radiologists are certainly busy these days, but they had better find the time to use online social networking services and tools in a professional capacity. Their careers just might depend on it, according to an article published online in Academic Radiology.

"The alternative is that a radiologist becomes less connected compared to their colleagues, a dangerous situation in the current competitive healthcare environment," wrote a multi-institutional team led by Dr. William Auffermann, PhD, from Emory University School of Medicine. "Consequently, online social networking services are a vital aspect of a radiologist's career and may be readily incorporated into one's daily practice."

Online social networking services offer a range of opportunities for radiologists, including facilitating networking for employment possibilities and for connecting with other physicians for clinical and research-related interests. They may also be useful for networking with patients, according to the researchers (Acad Radiol, September 25, 2014).

"New developments in online social networking have the potential to positively affect the way in which we practice radiology and medicine as a whole," Auffermann told AuntMinnie.com.

Building new ties

In the age of PACS, referring physicians visit the radiology reading room much less often. The reduced level of social interaction has led to a decline in interprofessional trust, according to the authors.

Although face-to-face interaction remains important for helping radiologists grow their visibility, "online social networks can provide radiologists with an opportunity to reach beyond the reading room and interact online with referring providers, other radiologists, and even patients to improve clinical care and advance scientific research," they wrote.

Both trainees and practicing radiologists can utilize social media for education. Using Twitter can improve engagement and collaborative thinking among meeting attendees, while online communities such as Radiolopolis and radRounds are finding more use in radiology clinical practice, the researchers noted.

Residents are also finding that online social networking sites are essential for building and maintaining a professional network.

"Connections made with other trainees or potential mentors at regional and national meetings can more easily be extended after the meeting with a simple follow or connection," the authors wrote. "Several academic radiology training programs have started alumni groups on sites like Facebook or LinkedIn to share important program updates, facilitate connections between current and past trainees, and share leads on potential job openings."

Clinician networking

Radiologist interactions with referring clinicians can be enhanced by online social networking. For example, it can facilitate communication and interaction by offering a forum for inquiries, answers, and elaboration of material on the radiology department website, according to the authors. Consultations on the best choice of imaging study or questions about patient preparation or study contraindications could be handled via social media tools.

"Such a platform may be analogous to an online 'chat' with a company representative, not an uncommon way of obtaining information in nonhealthcare-related industries," they wrote.

Radiologists can also make use of social media to add value to the care of a remote patient, such as, for example, to answer a referring physician's question about the best study to follow up abnormal findings on a radiography exam.

"They may in principle send an instant message analogous to a 'Tweet' to their radiology group, and any of the radiologists included on the 'Tweet' may respond," they wrote. "The message may even be directed to the radiologists in the appropriate field based on analysis of the text of the message."

Another example of a clinical scenario could involve a high-volume surgical oncologist who needs input on imaging for treatment planning for several patients, but is too busy to come to the reading room to review the imaging studies together with the radiologist. Instead, they could enter a physician-specific network on a closed platform to securely discuss the studies, according to the authors.

"Although email could also be used, online social networking sites are more efficient at handling multimedia files and can better serve as a repository of information, such as providing literature on the best practice and appropriateness guidelines," the authors wrote.

Questions for radiologists could also be automatically directed -- based on key words in the question -- to the mobile device of the radiologist with the appropriate expertise.

"The rapidity of communication and ability to provide supplemental material afforded by online social networking allow for a more personal consultation during which the surgical oncologist receives prompt personalized attention," they wrote.

Patient interaction

Radiologists can also take advantage of social media to interact directly with patients, offering a medium to answer questions from patients on imaging studies. In addition, social media provides a vehicle for radiology awareness and screening programs, according to the authors.

For example, a radiology group's Facebook page and Twitter account could be used to remind patients to schedule regular mammograms and other examinations. Social networking sites can also get the word out to the public about opportunities to enroll in clinical trials, the researchers noted.

Of course, some caution should be exercised in relying only on social media channels for communicating with patients.

"It must be stressed that online social networking should not replace other methods of communication but should supplement a broad and diverse communication strategy that can include email, newsletters, the telephone, and face-to-face interactions," they wrote. "The nuances of verbal communication (tone, facial expression, posture, and so forth) are often lost when using online social networking tools, which can cause patients to misinterpret or misconstrue information."

Another pitfall is the potential for blurring the lines between professional and personal contact and opportunities for unwanted or inappropriate sharing of protected health information, according to the authors. Also, some patients may not be able to participate in online social networking due to reasons such as literacy problems or poor access to digital resources.

Getting started

Radiologists who are just taking the plunge into professional online social networking and are nervous about intrusions into their personal life could focus on secure sites such as LinkedIn, physician-only sites such as Sermo or Doximity, or RadRounds (a radiologist-only site), according to the researchers.

Users can fine-tune their privacy settings to meet their needs or even tailor parts of their online profile for specific groups of viewers. Those who are particularly sensitive to privacy issues could opt to create separate online personas for professional and personal information.

Patient privacy must always be kept in mind when using online social networking for medical purposes. Appropriate caution should be used when sharing personal data and permission settings should be reviewed, the authors noted.

It's a good idea to start slow, taking a week or two to work with one network to determine if it meets your needs before trying others. Many physicians may be reluctant to participate in professional social networking due to a variety of reasons. They are busy people, and these tools may require learning a new skill for some physicians.

"Even physicians who are more familiar with online social networking may still feel they do not have adequate time to devote to this endeavor," Auffermann said. "However, it is important to recognize that after the initial expenditure of time and energy to start using one or more networking services, the amount of time needed to stay active and connected is relatively small."

Legal issues

The authors pointed out that pre-existing IT policies may need to be reviewed for compatibility with professional online social networking. A legal review should also be considered prior to adopting these tools.

A physician may also have legal responsibilities if he or she receives a chat communication from a patient that could have implications for medical treatment.

Auffermann advised that radiologists cannot afford to skip social networking.

"In this day and age, at least a minor amount of social networking should be a key part of most radiologists' professional development," he said. "As our society becomes more familiar with computers in general, I think online social networking will play an increasingly significant role in radiology and medicine."


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