Q&A with Jefferson Health's new chief medical social media officer

By | December 29, 2018

Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist at Jefferson Health in Pennsylvania, was recently tapped to take on a new role at the health system: chief medical social media officer. It’s a unique position that isn’t common at many medical institutions across the country. Chiang talked with Healthcare Dive to explain more about the job and his vision for the role moving forward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HEALTHCARE DIVE: Can you explain a little bit about this role and why there’s a need for it?

AUSTIN CHIANG: My role is basically to help boost clinician engagement here at Jefferson. I feel strongly personally that there need to be more professionals online disseminating accurate information because otherwise the conversation online is dominated by people who might lack the appropriate training to talk about health issues they’re talking about. On top of that, it’s also to help out with any of the campaigns the institution might have that they would like to spread on social media.

As a doctor, when will you have the time to do this and what’s your vision for the role?

CHIANG: We still have a whole media team here. I sort of bring that perspective of a clinician because there are obviously a lot of health topics that we are talking about as an institution and we’d like to raise awareness about certain things. There are specific questions or ways to reach both professional and general audiences that may be best crafted by a clinician.

In terms of what time I have for this, there is very little time because there are a lot of different responsibilities that I carry. I use social media just being a part of this millennial generation. I do it in my free time just like I would have done if I were scrolling non-professionally. It’s a lot of fun for me even if it’s taking time outside of work.

I’m sure you’ve encountered patients who turning to the internet for a diagnosis for their symptoms. How will this role help to combat misinformation?

CHIANG: I think that’s the reality of things. People will look to the web as a resource whether it’s to get more information to find an easier option, or just passively absorbing the information that they’re being presented through traditional media.

In terms of how to combat that, I think we as clinicians in some ways have to take it upon ourselves to spend more time on social media, be a part of that conversation and spread the word about where the resources are that people can get accurate information.

For instance, if someone is looking for a practitioner that is board certified in doing a certain procedure, they need to know where to go to look for that and we need to amplify that message. Otherwise, people can certainly say that they are qualified to do something, but not be able to present the appropriate credentials for that.

You’ve led specific campaigns before on social media. Can you explain more about those?

CHIANG: I started doing research using Twitter data to look at patterns [and answer questions such as] does institutional following correlate with institutional ranking? How exactly are medical journals within our field disseminating publications? Are they favoring certain types of articles, or are there certain subtopics within GI that are being neglected? We also looked at who was participating in these online conversations at conferences. 

The hashtag campaign that I started two or three months ago on Instagram was motivated by the fact that there are a lot of practitioners who I noticed aren’t necessarily trained in what they’re talking about. And some of these were non-physicians were presenting themselves as physicians and it’s easy to misrepresent one’s self if they have the glossy photo with the stethoscope and white coat. It really alarmed a lot of us who were trying to use social media as an educational tool. We felt it was counterproductive. So the hashtag campaign was basically to encourage these medical influencers, many of whom I know, to share their qualifications so that their following could know exactly who they were.

I was fooled by several accounts and, if I couldn’t tell they weren’t trained physicians, how would the general public figure that out?

What experiences piqued your interests in social media and its application for medical professionals?

CHIANG: I spent a little time at ABC News when I was in training because I really was curious how the general public got their medical knowledge through the media. At the time ABC was having weekly Twitter chats. I would participate in those chats while I was there and there would be really important thought leaders and representatives of different, important organizations participating in those chats. That’s when I realized: Clearly, there are important people involved in these conversations, and I should be involved as well.

Now that it’s a couple years later, there are many division chairs across the country in my field from a large academic institution now on Twitter, and I’ve been able to meet many of them as a result of being online. It’s a networking tool, as well that a lot of professionals don’t realize could be really useful.

There has been an increase in GI-related cancers for younger individuals, and since GI is your specialty, do you see a bigger campaign given younger individuals are present on social media?

CHIANG: I definitely see opportunities. There is nothing ongoing that is a concerted effort to intervene on a condition in GI on social media. I know that it has been done in other fields. I was actually speaking to another researcher earlier today about how they’ve tried to use social media to impact HPV vaccinations. It’s definitely for younger crowds who are social media savvy, especially for Instagram, and there may be opportunities to use it as a tool to actually improve public health.

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