Engaging with Patients on Social Media

While social media feels commonplace in our lives, it’s easy to forget that it has only been around for a relatively short period of time (Facebook launched in 2004). You may think of social media as a great way to connect, a waste of time, or just downright confusing. People engage with social media for so many different reasons. For patients, social media channels provide access to lots of information about health and medical care.

John Rolston, MD, PhD uses social media to engage with patients and provide them with a reliable source of information. Dr. Rolston is a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at the University of Utah, where he is the Director of Epilepsy Surgery and Director of Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery.

Dr. Rolston has been using social media to communicate with patients since 2017–shortly after finishing his residency in neurological surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. He first became interested in using these platforms to educate patients on treatment options that are available. Dr. Rolston recognized that people use social media as their primary news source and believed it was a smart way to connect with patients.

One of the advantages of Facebook is the ability to directly reach out to patients by conducting live events. This context gives patients an intimate setting to have conversations with an expert in their field. He finds that people connecting on Facebook Live are more open to asking questions than if sitting in a lecture. People feel as if they are anonymous as they ask questions with the hope to better understand their medical condition and how to treat it. For example, Essential Tremor patients from all over the country (and perhaps the world) can speak with a neurosurgeon to learn what a procedure such as focused ultrasound­ involves and how it works.

Beyond Facebook, patients can also reach Dr. Rolston through Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, and Instagram. He also communicates with patients through online support groups that reach out to ask if he can do a Q&A session with their members.

While a common perception is that most social media users are from the younger generation, Dr. Rolston said that it really depends on the medical condition. He hears from Essential Tremor patients in their 50s, 60s and even 70s.

In the future, Dr. Rolston intends to do more videos with patients discussing their own experience with a treatment. In this way patients will see and hear from a patient like themselves. People are often more receptive when hearing information directly from someone who has gone through a similar challenge.

Dr. Rolston is committed to sharing high quality information. He rigorously sources studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine. He sees his job as breaking down the complex results into simple terms so that patients can digest and understand.  Often his conversations with patients revolve around what are the side effects patients typically experience (and what are the worst things that can happen), and what is the potential for success of a particular treatment. Inevitably, people want to know how soon a treatment can be started!

Dr. Rolston and other physicians who embrace social media can establish themselves as a reliable source of knowledge and provide quality care for the patient communities they serve.

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