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The Social Side of Medicine: Using Instagram to Build the Physician-Patient Relationship

Sonal Mayekar, MD, introduces herself to Penn Medicine Instagram followers

Do you remember the last time you met a new doctor? Chances are, they were little more than a stranger whose job you knew was to help you feel better. If you found yourself feeling this way, you are not alone. Studies have found that the majority of primary care physicians spend 16 minutes or less with their patients during an appointment. In this time, a doctor has to communicate with the patient, determine a diagnosis, a course of treatment, and whether next steps such as additional testing are necessary. This leaves little time for trust and rapport building.

In a 2000 study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers wrote, “trust is a defining element in any interpersonal relationship, but is particularly central to the patient-physician relationship.” The same study posited that the more trust patients have in their health care providers, the more willing they may be to follow their doctor’s orders. Even so, clinicians aren’t in a position to create more time in a day, and this is where new methods for trust-building, or at least a look behind the proverbial medical curtain may prove useful. Enter Instagram.

In June of 2018, it was estimated that approximately 105 million people in the United States used Instagram. Unsurprisingly, this number includes countless medical professionals. As social media has become a more active part of peoples’ lives, health care systems have embraced it. At Penn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are leveraged to communicate FDA approvals, strategies for tackling common issues like a lack of sleep, and communicating new ways to deliver care.

“When I joined Penn in September of 2018, I started working with communications and marketing teams within the health system to think about ways to educate the public about what I do every day, particularly outside of seeing patients,” recalls Sonal Mayekar, MD, a radiation oncologist at Penn Radiation Oncology Doylestown. It was out of this conversation that the idea of hosting a day-long Instagram “takeover” – in which Mayekar would post directly to Penn Medicine’s Instagram account – began to take root.

Mayekar took time to share aspects of her personal life

For Mayekar, who was studying at Carnegie Mellon University when Facebook first opened up to college students nationwide, an Instagram takeover felt like a natural way to shed light on a typical day for her, while representing her generation of clinicians. “I grew up with dial-up internet, when email and instant messaging were new and everyone was trying to figure it all out. Social media wasn’t there. After instant messaging came Facebook, and that was exciting. I feel like this was the first generation to take hold of social media in college, and I continued to grow with it. I’ve been keeping up with it.”

An important component of the Instagram takeover was the blending of the various personal and professional parts of Mayekar’s day. Mayekar’s first posts told the story of her morning, which involve waking up a 5:30 a.m., making coffee, and grabbing a pair of her favorite shoes (or winter boots) before heading to Doylestown. From there, Mayekar used Instagram to tell the story of her day as radiation oncologist, including an explanation of how her day is divided between meeting with patients, reviewing notes, simulations, and more coffee. This unique perspective is something patients rarely get the chance to witness, but Mayekar believes even small glimpses of the personal side of medicine can make a big difference in how patients relate to their physicians.

“When I’m walking up to the consult room to see my patients, I’m the only female physician in our department, so there’s always a smile when they see my shoes, and they usually make a comment like, ‘I heard you coming down the hall, I knew it was going to be you,’ and I get a positive reaction from them.”

Beyond using the Instagram takeover to share the personal side of her medicine, Mayekar took the opportunity to educate users on the variety of tools she uses in patient care. One such tool, a linear accelerator – commonly used for external radiation therapy – presented a great opportunity for a video explanation.

“I think one of the most important things is showing people the tools I work with. It wasn’t until I took an elective in radiation oncology that I even knew what a linear accelerator looks like or what it does. Understanding that it’s not a tube, that it’s open around you, I think is important for a lot of patients and families to know.”

Mayekar provided a video explanation of her facility's linear accelerator and how it works

Indeed, presenting this information to the public means greater awareness of what treatment for a cancer diagnosis might look like. And that awareness can alleviate uncertainty and build more trust among patients and the physicians treating them. It’s for this reason that, while time-consuming, Mayekar believes programs like the Instagram takeover hold real value for medical professionals.

“I would encourage others to do this. It was very time consuming, but I wanted to keep it a mix of clinical and behind the scenes type of stuff. I think in the fields of radiation and of surgery, a physician is kind of in a black hole, where a patient doesn’t really know what we’re doing until we come out of the operating room, or we tell them what the treatment plan looks like.”

Beyond the benefits for patients, Mayekar received a very warm reception from her peers.

“What I found surprising was that I had a lot of people reach out to me who were either in medical school or in premed who really appreciated what it looks like to be an attending.”

Ultimately, when patients can see clinicians as partners in their health, they can feel more at ease and realize a greater level of familiarity in some of life’s most trying times. Mayekar believes that these are the types of results an Instagram takeover can cultivate.

“It’s about communicating mindfulness. Showing that I’m eating healthy, taking time to go to the gym. Part of being a good doctor is taking care of yourself. For me it’s about more than a cure, it’s about healing patients, both physically and emotionally.” And that’s the type of healing that takes trust.

To view posts form the Instagram takeover, click here


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