The use of social media (defined as internet-based tools that allow content-sharing among individuals and communities) by healthcare professionals (HCPs), as well as patients, has ushered in a new era of on-demand communication deemed the “digital revolution.” Gone are the days of having to wait for data dissemination through traditional methods of communication (eg, print journals). No longer do you have to wait for an influential scientific congress to provide a venue to interact with a key opinion leader in your field of interest. Through the use of digital platforms, once study results are released, HCPs and patients can access these data almost in real time. Platforms that were previously viewed as means of social engagement are now potentially influencing HCPs and healthcare decisions. As there are clear benefits to using these online platforms, medical and scientific publishing companies are making strides to keep pace with the changes brought about by digital media, while remaining loyal to traditional methods of publishing.

Shift in the medical journal publishing industry, embracing digital platforms
Some might think that the data-heavy content of medical journals would not fit the mold of the digital/social media landscape, nor would journals’ primary readers (physicians) want to engage in novel routes of communication. However, in the last few years there has been a gradual shift in the medical journal publishing industry to embrace digital platforms. A recent survey of US physicians performed by Google/Manhattan reported that physicians spend twice as much time using online resources compared with print materials when making clinical decisions, and more than 80% use a smartphone or tablet in their practice. Another published survey, by CMI/Compas, reported that although physicians still rely on medical journals and congresses as their top sources for information, they tend to utilize alternative media channels when they have limited time; 46% of oncologists reported use of online search engines for professional purposes at least 4 times a day. This trend can also be seen at the student level, where a national survey reported that more than 90% of medical students within the US use social media for professional networking and development.1

Medical journal staffs are aware that the demand for digital and mobile-friendly content is present, and with a myriad of potential online platforms at their disposal, they are taking steps to reach a new demographic of users. Social media sites can be grouped by purpose, serving functions such as

  • Social networking (Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter)
  • Professional networking (LinkedIn)
  • Media sharing (YouTube, Flickr)
  • Content production (blogs [Tumblr, Blogger] and microblogs [Twitter])
  • Knowledge/information collection (Wikipedia)

Online platforms supporting education
Online platforms that support education (peer-to-peer discussion and transfer of knowledge) and communication (personalized healthcare for patients and their families) while also being visually appealing and easy to navigate have been observed to have the most success within the medical community.

This is evident in digital media updates that have been produced by reputable medical journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Renowned for publishing groundbreaking clinical trial results, NEJM has a loyal following, thanks to the quality of its published research. NEJM has expanded its reach into social media, with an online presence that includes multiple platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and mobile apps) that allow active discussion and content-sharing among HCPs, patients, and their families. The presence of NEJM on these platforms has been very well received, with approximately 1.5 million and 490K followers on Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

Although it is unclear what success in a digital market will look like in 5 years, whether it will be based on the number of followers on a social media platform or the number of shares a post receives, we must be mindful that the overarching goal is to improve research and patient care. Irrespective of the mode of communication used (internet based vs print), there should always be a validation step to ensure the dissemination of scientifically sound and unbiased information to those involved in making healthcare decisions. Although the digital revolution is already influencing medical journal and publishing practices, the focus on optimizing patient care should remain our priority.

Reference
1. Bosslet GT, Torke AM, Hickman SE, Terry CL, Helft PR. The patient-doctor relationship and online social networks: results of a national survey. J Gen Intern Med. 2011:26(10):1168-1174.