Illustration by Suneesh K.
Consumers across the world are becoming increasingly accustomed to finding just about every product or service online, and healthcare is no exception.
Patients today not only search for doctors or clinics online but also look for all sorts of health-related information, from researching any unusual symptoms they may be experiencing or finding out about the latest treatments and healthcare trends.
Having a presence online not just helps doctors to address several health-related queries and reach out to thousands at one go, it also helps patients find information relevant to them.
Paramjeet Singh, a physician practising in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, started creating and posting content online about five years ago because he felt it was difficult to cater to the demand of each and every patient visiting his clinic explaining the root cause of the basic problems experienced by them.
With an aim to educate people regarding the basics of common health problems from a doctor's perspective, Dr Singh started his YouTube channel which has over two million subscribers today.
Dr Singh on an average sees 20 to 25 patients per day at his physical clinic which runs from 10 am to 12 pm in the first half and from 5 pm to 7 pm in the second half.
"More than 90 percent of patients who receive treatment tend to attend online sessions for the follow-up treatment," said Dr Singh.
"I used the social media platform to engage with not just my patients but also others who cannot come and visit me personally. Since catering to each and every patient was almost impossible, the idea of creating content for common health problems came to my mind," Dr Singh said.
Social media and online content marketing provide healthcare professionals (HCPs) the tools to share information to debate healthcare policy and practice issues, to promote healthy behaviour, to engage with people, and to educate and interact with patients, caregivers, students and colleagues.
"I prefer Instagram and Facebook over other platforms for creating content," said Swati Maheswari, an internal medicine specialist based in Gurgaon, a Delhi suburb. She also finds it a way to broad-base the medical advice offered. "I get questions from all corners; from paediatric to geriatric queries. Since I am a general physician, I get a lot of unfiltered questions from people and I guide them to go to experts for their queries. Having an online presence helps in connecting with patients in a better way."
Dr Swati has over 72,000 followers on Facebook and over 36,000 followers on Instagram.
Siddharth Warrier, a neurologist who is also a content creator, feels the social media outreach for doctors is not a side hustle anymore as the drive for content creation has now become a universal trend.
"Every person present on social media today has the urge to share what they want to, because they have a platform. The people who are qualified, when they share good content, add to public awareness and hence the chances of misinformation are less," Dr Warrier said.
Dr Warrier has nearly 58,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.
So is an online presence a viable alternative to a physical clinic visit? Dr Warrier said no doctor should discuss particular patient cases on social media, even on private messages, and that the clinic is still very important for patient management.
"As a doctor, I don't recommend prescribing medicine on social media, as every patient is different and requires a specific line of treatment," he said.
On his part, rather than dole out treatment advice, Dr Warrier says he utilises the time on social media for doing different kinds of livestreams and podcasts with experts on issues related to neurosciences.
"I do several discussions on neuroscience including topics like depression, anxiety and mental health on social media platforms. I don't recommend medicine on social media because it is too open to interpretation," he said.
So is it a fine line between information dispenser and influencer? When asked about influencer marketing and selling healthcare products directly, Dr Singh explained that audiences' expectation from a doctor creating content is very different from that of any other YouTuber creating content.
Is there an issue of conflict of interest when it comes to, say, giving a prescription? Dr Maheswari said some companies do reach out to them for selling or advertising products but "we normally don’t endorse a product which we haven't used personally".
"The doctors don't normally specify on buying a particular product, there might be a handful who would do that but ethically that is not right," she added.
The rise in health content availability coupled with the growing demand of online consultation in a diverse country like India may offer solutions in a short-term scenario but, according to the Indian Medical Association (IMA), there should be a framework for online content on health to curb the menace of misinformation.
"We have seen people sharing all kinds of videos during COVID-19. The misinformation on social media was huge. Teleconsultation for those residing in remote areas is understandable but people buying medicine by merely googling the symptoms or watching online content is a dangerous precedent," said IMA president Dr Shahjanand Prasad Singh.
Balancing informative content, widening the audience, going in for paid-content partnerships and building relationships with people and others from the healthcare community are a few of the challenges HCPs face. Entering the world of online content creation can sometimes be daunting, but doctors today are using their social media presence for providing health education to people, promoting their practice, advocating for a cause and connecting with fellow doctors.
Social media has become the new "doctor's lounge".
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