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A survey last summer of 501 randomly selected doctors found that more than 20 percent engaged in emails with patients over secure networks, and similar numbers had websites allowing patients to schedule visits or download test results. Only 6 percent communicated with patients through social media; that translates to about 60,000 doctors nationwide.
Doctors' use of social media and virtual communication for patient care is expected to increase under the Accountable Care Act, which encourages electronic health records and the "electronic exchange" of health information.
A study published online in March found that 60 percent of state public health departments use Twitter or another social media site, mostly to distribute information rather than interact with patients.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spreads its public health messages by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and text-messaging. It offers a free service featuring 12 texts a month, including automated tips for healthy eating and other obesity prevention advice. The CDC has almost 2 million followers on its social media sites, said Amy Burnett Heldman, the agency's social media leader.
The agency's leader, Dr. Tom Frieden, has done six live Twitter chats since December, interacting in real time online with the public.
"There's a way 4 everyone 2 work out, u just have 2 find your way around what obstacles may b in your path," Frieden tweeted May 21 in his most recent Twitter chat, about obesity prevention.
CDC scientists also monitor social media sites including Twitter for disease surveillance. One instance involved Indiana measles cases that first showed up a few days before the February Super Bowl. CDC officials monitored Twitter and Facebook posts about rashes and emergency room visits to determine if the outbreak was a widespread threat -- it wasn't. Another involved an outbreak of suspected Legionnaires disease among people who attended a 2011 event at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. Word of that illness surfaced when a German businessman who attended posted about his flu-like symptoms on Facebook, and CDC used social media sites to help locate the illness source -- a whirlpool spa.
Heldman says using social media makes sense for an agency whose goal is to improve Americans' health.
"You're meeting people where they are, where they share information with others, where they go to get information," she said. "That's allowing CDC to have an even greater reach."
In other examples:
Public health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., have posted YouTube videos warning kids about excess sugar in sodas and juice boxes. And health agencies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have used text messages to send safe-sex advice to teens, including what to do when a condom breaks.
Dr. Jennifer Dyer quit her pediatrician job in Columbus, Ohio, last year to start a social media-based patient education company after running a small study that showed text messages helped her teenage patients better manage their diabetes. She's creating smartphone apps that will do the same.
The famed Mayo Clinic holds "Tweet camps" to train its doctors how to use Twitter appropriately, said Lee Aase, director of Mayo's Center for Social Media in Rochester, Minn.
Says Aase, "If we can trust doctors with sharp instruments and narcotics, we can trust them with Twitter and Facebook."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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