Farhad Sigari, MD, an otolaryngologist in California, has always found value in online interaction.
When Dr. Sigari, who is with the Del Rey Allergy and Sinus Institute in Marina Del Rey, Calif., first opened his practice, he spent time on a website answering patient questions about different issues in otolaryngology, thinking it would help him find new patients. It didn’t, but it helped him strengthen his communication skills. Fast-forward several years, and Dr. Sigari’s practice is filled with patients—and he has limited time to spend online.
But Dr. Sigari still visits networking websites, particularly those aimed at physicians, such as Doximity. There, he interacts with other physicians, reads insights about other physicians’ difficult clinical cases, and scans the site’s newsfeed for specific journal articles and abstracts tailored to otolaryngology.
Doing so helps him keep his eye on the pulse of his profession on his own limited free time. “I can see and follow the experience of others even if I am not posting the questions myself, and they can be quite useful,” he said. “It helps to get a sense of what other physicians are thinking.” Instead of gaining insights once or twice a year while attending professional conferences, ongoing online interaction on physician-centered networking websites helps give “a more accurate reading of what is going on with the profession and industry, and a more real-time response,” he said.
Social networks such as Doximity, QuantiaMD, and SERMO offer healthcare professional-centric networking and collaboration and position themselves as places where physicians, medical school students, nurses, and physician assistants can find their peers and colleagues. They can also conduct clinical business, find job postings, and sometimes even earn CME credit. It’s a different flavor from what’s possible on more generalized social media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook.
I can see and follow the experience of others [on the networking site], even if I am not posting the questions myself, and they can be quite useful; it helps to get a sense of what other physicians are thinking. —Farhad Sigari, MD
What Physician Network Sites Offer
While each physician network has its own flavor, all stress the importance of professional involvement. “We are, in essence, the world’s largest doctor’s lounge,” said Peter Kirk, the CEO of SERMO, a site founded in 2005. “Our DNA, the core, is truly user-generated content, and the physician engagement is what makes SERMO what it is.” The site confirms that all of its users are physicians and up to 90% of them choose to post anonymously. Doing so lets users “speak in confidence, give their true opinions, and be more daring,” Kirk added.
Physicians use SERMO and similar sites for patient referrals, job searches, discussions on topics such as policy and clinician research, and medical crowdsourcing on difficult clinical cases. “That’s our most important value to society: to help improve physician decision making and instantly access the knowledge of their peers,” said Kirk. “You can get 10 to 20 doctors commenting on a case within 24 hours. That’s pretty amazing; in the offline world, it can take several days to get two doctors together” to talk about a case.
The insight gleaned from online visits is valuable, Kirk added. “Some of our doctors say they have learned more on SERMO than in all their CMEs put together,” he said. “It’s real-world experience. With clinical trials, they’re perfectly constructed and executed. But real-world medicine is much more muddy, with complex patients. There’s much more going on.”
How Is Privacy Maintained?
Kirk and others interviewed for this story insisted that most physicians who use such sites are fully aware of privacy issues and HIPAA considerations, and that users are careful to obscure their patients’ identities when discussing medical cases. “Most physicians know the ramifications and get full consent from their patients, especially if you can see the face,” said Eric Gantwerker, MD, MS, lead physician advisor and the director of continuing medical education for Level EX, the developer of Airway EX, a medical virtual surgery app; Dr. Gantwerker is also an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Texas, Southwestern and a practicing pediatric otolaryngic surgeon at Children’s Health, Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. “There is still some sharing, but people take it seriously. They know they can lose their license if privacy is compromised.”
Doximity uses a secure messaging platform that is encrypted and HIPAA compliant, which helps maintain privacy, said Joel Davis, Doximity’s vice president of growth.
The sharing community spans all social media, and that isn’t going away, said Kirk, but social networks are not all interchangeable. “I encourage people to understand what they are using different social channels for, and to direct it to the appropriate channel,” he said. “With HIPAA concerns, I don’t recommend physicians posting things like cases or strong policy beliefs to Facebook, and I’ve warned friends who have done that. Know what is appropriate for which site. If you can share valued content and push an idea forward, in the right environment, that helps peers and society move forward.”
You can get 10 to 20 doctors commenting on a case within 24 hours. In the offline world, it can take several days to get two doctors together. —Peter Kirk
Best Ways to Use Networking Sites
Spending time on any online networking sites—physician-centered or otherwise—can eat up a lot of time. To get your best return on the investment of that time, know your goals and act accordingly.
“I encourage everybody to try different sites out, depending on that person’s focus and needs,” said Dr. Gantwerker. Then stick with what you find most useful, rather than trying to maintain a presence everywhere. “Having multiple social media profiles gets exhausting, and there can be content overload,” said Dr. Gantwerker. “People tend to pare down to what they prioritize as most important to them.”
For some sites like Doximity, all users are identified by name, and anonymity is not allowed. In fact, being more recognizable makes the experience richer, said Davis. “Take some time to update your profile and add a photo,” he said. “Those on Doximity who have photos get 20% more colleague requests. Being a well-networked doctor and having a well-documented Doximity CV [an online profile based on a user’s actual CV] can show up high in Google results, making the physician better able to be found online.”
Ask yourself, “What needs do I have as a physician?” said Dr. Sigari. He added that because physicians generally have so little time, it’s important to use that time wisely to find the online resources to help you fulfill those needs. “Personally,” he said, “weekly polls and surveys can be nice, but they don’t help me as a physician.”
Social media is always evolving, and physician-centered networking sites are no exception. “The sense of finding community online is never going to go away,” said Dr. Gantwerker. But some sites may merge with competitors to offer more services to physicians and others who have few moments for leisure. “I think more sites will mix social networking and information in the future, because we don’t have a lot of time.
Streamlining will happen,” said Dr. Sigari. Citing Facebook and Snapchat, a mobile app that lets users send photos, videos, and messages to each other before the images disappear, Dr. Gantwerker noted that many companies will incorporate features from each other to improve their user experience. “It’s not physician networking, but Snapchat blew past everything, prompting Facebook to develop Facebook Live,” the ability for Facebook users to record and transmit live video feeds to each other, he said. “Similar things will happen with the physician networking sites.”
Successful innovation that gives physicians—and other online users—what they want in an online networking experience will help certain sites continue to thrive. “Just because you were the first doesn’t mean you were the best,” said Dr. Gantwerker. “Sites can change in real time to take advantage of the best elements available.”
Cheryl Alkon is a freelance medical writer based in Massachusetts.