It’s hard to imagine life without social media, even though the active use of it is less than 15 years old. People use social media to stay connected to family and friends, for information on communities, and more. And although social media is most often used as a personal outlet, it has become much more prevalent in the professional realm as well.

Sima Zadeh Bedoya, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist in the psychosocial support and research program at the National Institutes of Health at the National Cancer Institute, gave a lecture at the 43rd Annual Congress in Washington, DC, on her work with professional social media boundaries. She also explained that a better understanding of how patients with cancer use social media will help oncology nurses to fully comprehend what is influencing their choices for treatment and information, as well how to work with patients to evaluate the quality of the information obtained from the Internet.

According to Bedoya, patients with cancer, their families, and their care providers are using social media in vast and pervasive ways—and it’s important for care providers to be aware of how it is being used in the context of health care.

When it comes to social media, sharing information falls into various categories:

  • Social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn)
  • Weblogs/microblogs (CaringBridge, Twitter)
  • Content communities (YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, ONS communities)
  • Collaborative projects (Wikipedia, Skype)
  • Podcasts (Cancer.net, TED Talks, NPR, ONS podcast)
  • Forum/message boards (Yahoo! Answers, Cancer Survivors Network, ONS communities)

Bedoya said that patients and families can benefit from social media in ways such as education, treatment guidance, clinical trial recruitment, an awareness increase, and even fundraising. She shared results of a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, where an estimated 72% of Internet users have searched for online health information in the past year because of the steadily increasing cost of health care.

Pertaining to health-related online content, patients and their families may search these sources to learn more about diagnoses, understand the different treatment options available, seek second opinions, explore relevant scientific research, and compare and share experiences with other patients.

The concern of misinformation also becomes a factor in social media, and patients might not be able to differentiate between accurate and useful information and information that is misleading and erroneous.

Social media also has personal and professional benefits for oncology providers. According to Bedoya’s presentation, oncology providers are three times more likely to communicate with their patients in an online format, and using social media professionally can open up opportunities for continuing education and networking. In contrast, personal benefits include being a simple distraction from emotionally taxing situations, offering human connections with friends, and combatting compassion fatigue and burnout. However, Bedoya noted that social media comes with ethical and professional challenges, such as privacy and confidentiality issues, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and making sure your professional reputation stays intact. In addition, using social media to communicate with patients (other than approved formats such as patient portals) can blur boundaries and create challenging ethical situations that may affect patient care.

Challenging nurses to stay educated on their institution’s social media policy and general recommendations for patient-provider boundaries, Bedoya concluded that safe use of social media can protect patients and providers while enabling effective patient care.

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