Tamara Oser, MD and Sean Oser, MD, MPH
The evolution of social media presents an opportunity for medical learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom and can be a useful tool for engaging millennial and Generation Y students. Cheston et al stated that social media tools can be used safely in medical education settings and that their use may have a positive impact on learner outcomes.1 While this may be true, attention must be given to concerns regarding privacy and appropriate use of social media among medical professionals.
Blogs can be a unique tool for helping students to gain a deeper understanding, empathy, and insight into the lives of patients with chronic diseases. Through the analysis of blogs written by patients and caregivers, students can better appreciate that although medical professionals may be experts in certain realms of the disease, the patients are the experts in living with the disease. Blogs are available at any time, not limited to one’s immediate geographic area, and can bring people together in ways and from places not possible through the traditional health care system.2 Through guided exposure to blogs, students can also learn to use blogs as a potential resource for peer to peer support in patients living with chronic diseases.
At Penn State University College of Medicine, we developed a Humanities elective to educate fourth-year medical students through the use of patient and caregiver blogs. We chose to use type 1 diabetes as the model chronic condition, based on our previous work with the diabetes on-line community.3 The course consists not only of didactic sessions but also relies heavily on the use of our own course blog, http://tmsbc16.blogspot.com. In order to encourage students to post freely and to ensure participation, we assigned aliases (“ketone, “insulin”, etc.) for students to use when posting comments on the class blog. Topics were covered included our views of “non-adherence,” the patient-doctor relationship, and why patients may be less than honest with their doctors. Students also identified blogs for other chronic conditions and discussed the presence or absence of medical misinformation, including looking for third party certification of a blog and/or its content (eg, HONcode certification, http://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Conduct.html). The course concluded with a session on using social media in professional medical endeavors, and by having the students design blogs for their future (hypothetical) professional practices. One such example can be found at https://amblyopiasupportgroup.wordpress.com. Students felt the course “gave exposure to the vast online community/resources patients turn to and insight into the daily struggles of having a chronic disease.”
Educators can use patient and caregiver blogs as adjuncts to their didactic sessions to broaden the students’ understanding of health conditions. In doing so, we recommend reading the blog posts for medical misinformation and/or using blogs that have received HONcode certification. Class blogs can also be used to extend learning and interaction among students and educators. In doing so, we found it was important to assign alias names that students could use when posting so that we (as instructors) could be sure that each student contributed, but so that students could comment freely, as they were anonymous to their peers.
As family physicians, we are best suited to think broadly and creatively for ways to improve patient-doctor relationships, and the use of patient blogs in medical student education is one such example.
- Cheston CC, Flickinger TE, Chisolm MS. Social media use in medical education: a systematic review. Acad Med. 2013 Jun;88(6):893–901. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e31828ffc23.
- Rains S, Keating D. The Social Dimension of Blogging about Health: Health Blogging, Social Support and Well-being. Communication Monographs. 2011;78(4):511-534.
- Hilliard ME, Sparling KM, Hitchcock J, Oser TK, Hood KK. The emerging diabetes online community. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2015;11(4):261-72. PMID: 25901500 PMCID: PMC4586085