Online networks

Authors: David Isaacson 

Publication date:  21 Jul 2010


The BMJ’s community manager, David Isaacson, picks out the best and the worst online medical communities

The rise of the Facebook generation is changing the shape of our social interactions. Gone is the day when feelings and emotions were kept private or between close friends; now every thought is welcomed and the actions of millions of people are available at the touch of a button.

It is becoming increasingly clear that for many people, expressing opinions through various social media tools is more accessible than face to face interaction. As more and more people have switched on to the social media movement, subgroups have been formed, and the medical profession has not missed out.

The use of social media and professional online networking among doctors has been steadily growing over the past 10 years. Twitter and Facebook have been at the new frontier, and doctors are now no strangers to new technology. Doctors from all around the world can now easily share case studies and knowledge, debate new medical advances, and air their opinions. This promotes a broader knowledge base from which many can reap benefits.

The rewards of joining and engaging with online communities can be huge. Most notably, raising your profile and making an impact online can ultimately improve your career. However, the potential hazards of sharing information in this digital age cannot be ignored, and breaches of confidentiality and trust can lose jobs and sometimes make headlines. There is a wealth of online community websites out there dedicated to doctors, but here are my top five.

doctors.net

[Link]

Members: 175 495

doctors.net is the most popular online community for doctors in the United Kingdom, partly owing to the popular email address that doctors.net provides and also because of the wealth of information that it offers. Recently, doctors.net has been moving outside of its UK borders to collaborate with communities in the European Union, such as Sweden, which will help doctors.net provide a wider view of medicine.

Most of the activity on the site is based on the forum boards, which are separated into medical specialties and subcategories. Although these forums look somewhat dated, they are easy and quick to use and allow members to drive straight into discussions.

I have worked as a community manager on online social networking sites for the past six years. I often think about the importance of offering members value for their time; that is, what does our site offer the doctors who use it? Building a community site and platform alone is not enough; members need a reason to return. This is where doctors.net is successful, because by offering an excellent email service they are able to retain members, and by ensuring members log in every day to check their email they are more likely to get members to contribute content to the site.

Another advantage of using the site is that “members . . . have the opportunity to earn points—electronic Surfing Rewards—as they navigate the site. Points can be exchanged for products and high street vouchers” (doctors.net).

doctors.net certainly has the popular vote and is a very active site. However, the quality of some of the content is questionable because it is often fuelled by members ranting about their workplace rather than discussing medical advances; it’s really a question of what you want from a community site. There have been a few occasions when members of doctors.net have overstepped the line, which I’ll discuss at the end of this article.

Sermo

[Link]

Members: 112 000

What happens when you mix the American Medical Association, drug sponsorship, and social media? Sermo.

Sermo is a standard online community website that requires membership to view its content and is the most popular doctors’ community in America. Its popularity not only provides a space for doctors to let off steam and learn, but also allows sponsors and drug companies to interact with the community and hold discussions with doctors.

Sponsors can, therefore, gather feedback on drugs or perhaps on new treatment techniques. This format is unique to Sermo and certainly ensures it is a very profitable site.

Sermo has the power to challenge government health policies. Recently many of its members expressed a concern about President Obama’s new healthcare plan, which promoted debate. This rift may have contributed to the American Medical Association ending its partnership with Sermo.

doc2doc

[Link]

Members: 28 000

doc2doc has a range of tools to help you network with other doctors on a professional and social level. It is also one of the few sites that offers closed clinical forums for verified doctors as well as open access forums for healthcare professionals.

doc2doc has a varied and vibrant community of dedicated members who give information, help answer medical questions, and offer career advice. doc2doc was also on the front line at the outbreak of the swine flu crisis; Carlos (doc2doc founding member and Mexican doctor) was one of the first people to blog about swine flu from ground zero.

doc2doc is constantly pushing the boundaries of interaction and personalisation within social media. On Twitter, doc2doc is well respected and gained more than 1600 followers in a year.

When technology doesn’t correctly support a community, issues arise and members became alienated. doc2doc has been no stranger to technical issues, suffering from a lack of search engine optimisation and poor functioning on NHS computers and mobile devices. If left untreated, technical issues will eventually push away community members to competitor sites.

DoctorsHangout

[Link]

Members: 16 360

This site is popular in the Indian subcontinent, and unlike most, does not verify members. DoctorsHangout is packed with information, including multimedia and job adverts.

The message on its “about us” page should give you an idea of the range of content and ideas on DoctorsHangout: “Just imagine a group of monkeys. Monkeys can learn only from their parents and other group members. They can’t learn from other monkeys on another hill or another side of the world . . . Doctors using tools like Doctors Hangout can communicate, share, and learn medical knowledge by interacting with doctors on the other side of the world.”

DoctorsHangout will be of most benefit to student doctors because it has many forums and blogs dedicated to becoming a doctor.

Medpedia

[Link]

Members: <5000

Medpedia is a medical wiki community site funded largely by Harvard Medical School. It aims to create an open access community site where content is based on a collaborative approach.

However, wikis have been the subject of a lot of bad press recently for inaccuracy. They should not be used as a sole source for information, and, because of this, universities and schools now ask pupils not to reference wikis.

Where does this leave Medpedia? Certainly a lot of start up cash was put into this project, but it is unclear whether it will become a success in this already oversaturated market.

When the delete button can’t save you: the hazards of social networking

It’s quite easy to forget when using these professional community sites that posting may cause issues in your workplace. In the last year there have been a couple of instances of doctors being suspended for improper use of community sites.

The lying down game

A number of staff were suspended from Swindon’s Great Western Hospital for improper use of Facebook. Simon Levy posts on doc2doc: “Images of [the staff] basically lying down were posted on Facebook, which have now been removed and are seen by the hospital as unprofessional conduct.”

Posting pictures of yourself messing around in your work uniform is a quick way to get noticed by management for all the wrong reasons. Certainly a lapse of judgment and a lack of forward thinking nearly cost these junior doctors their careers. There is a discussion on doc2doc about this controversy, which can be found at: [Link] .

Jobgate

A junior doctor was suspended from work because of content the doctor posted on doctors.net.

Another junior doctor, who has remained nameless, was suspended from work for making offensive comments on doctors.net about a senior medical figure. These comments were reported to the deanery and the General Medical Council, which led to the immediate suspension of the junior doctor.

A massive backlash was started by medical bloggers and community members of doctor.net claiming the right of freedom of speech.

Tim Ringrose, medical director of doctors.net, said that it removed the offensive part of the posting as soon as it was alerted to it. “We do remind members postings should not contain anything offensive, inflammatory, or potentially libellous, but this used some rather strong language that was personal in nature,” he said (Pulse, 11 Aug 2008, [Link] ).

My top tips for using professional communities

  • Be professional—you may be at home posting on a social networking site while knocking back your favourite tipple and sitting in your underwear, but that doesn’t mean professional courtesy goes out the window

  • If you are unsure about what you have written, don’t post it

  • The more you contribute, the more you will gain

  • Above all, remember that engaging with online communities is enjoyable and a great way to learn

Competing interests: David Isaacson is community manager of doc2doc.

David Isaacson doc2doc community manager BMJ Group

 disaacson@bmj.com

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: