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Dentistry in the age of social media

Simon Oldfield is a Foundation Dentist working in sheffield

The proliferation of the social media is now a construct which is unavoidable creating both challenges and opportunities for the healthcare profession. It is not only affecting training and development, but also how we interact with each other, our patients, and their expectations and mental health. According to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics 90% of adults are online and the internet is now synonymous with social media with 73% accessing mobile data and 77% of adults purchasing products online. This widespread usage of social media and online information is changing the way we interact and communicate. The popularity and attractiveness of social media stems from the ease in sharing, creating and uploading information and being able to communicate and participate in an expressive nature and create remote connections with people. 

In this article we will highlight the effects of social media in dentistry and present findings from one hundred patient perspectives on social media in a general dental practice.   

Health promotion and Learning 

Social media can be used as a vehicle for health promotion, dissemination of information to patients and the public and for personal and professional development. Many dental schools, dental practices and corporates use posts, blogs and videos to enhance educational learning and to update patients on healthy practices. However, to use social media as a development tool we must create a supportive and positive environment.  It is all too common that clinical work on social media is highly edited and very selective creating unrealistic expectations for other dentists or posts are highly criticised and are met with strong negativity. We must understand that although a tool for development and open communication it can also cause professionals to limit their contact with other professionals as they feel they are inadequate or will be publicly criticised on social media. It allows us to connect and consult easily with experts in the profession and produces a network in what can be a lonely profession- something we need to remember before criticising. We must also be aware that evidence-based dentistry is what we should be aspiring too and much information on social media is not EBD or current practice. We are responsible for what we post and as a profession we need to remember this and encourage positive debate and inspiration, not create a forum for negativity. 

Risks to professionalism 

Since the rise of social media there has also been a rise in concerns over the risks it poses to professionalism and as such professional bodies such as the GDC and GMC have created rules around the effects of social media by focusing on its impact on the conduct of healthcare professionals. However, often these standards are created by other professionals and perhaps overlook the opinions of patients. There are suggestions that professionals struggle to understand what e-professionalism is and the difference between being professional and unprofessional online. However, if we can identify and apply professionalism in conventional interactions, surely online is no different. Professionalism is an attitude that should be conveyed whether in an interpersonal meeting or when interacting online and seems nonsensical to suggest otherwise. However, development into training is needed and the GDC clearly states we need to be aware of the consequences of our online profiles, but the task of educating and creating a framework for e-professionalism seems less clear. We as dental professionals have a social contract of trust and authority to our patients and the public and as a representative of the profession, we must uphold morals, values and behaviour befitting. Didactic teaching on this and strict guidance seems ineffective, so perhaps we need to further understand how patients view social media and how they see its use within healthcare and indeed dentistry.

In the cohort sampled 82% of patients suggested social media has a place in healthcare and dentistry, with 79% wishing our practice to utilise social media. Interestingly, although a large majority of patients see social media as part of healthcare 32% think it could reduce the professionalism of dentistry and 31% suggest it could damage the patient-dentist relationship. In delving deeper in those that responded positively to social media they suggested would they would like to see: -

  • Oral health promotion and how to look after you mouth- 88% positive response 
  • Information on holistic health such as diet, exercise, sugar, smoking and alcohol- 89% positive response 
  • Updates on what treatments we can offer- 64% positive response 
  • Availability of appointments- 93% positive response 
  • Updates on current dental practice and technology- 32% positive response 
  • Information about the team- 34% positive response 

As there seems to be a demand for social media it is up to us as professionals to maintain boundaries as online profiles can reduce the social distance that traditionally separated healthcare professionals from the public. However, in an era of shared decision making, transparency in practice and open discussion perhaps this reduction in social standing will benefit patient- professionals’ interaction. Whilst the above is true we must understand that a negative digital footprint can be widespread and irretrievable and, so we must be extremely cautious about the content we disseminate and the communication we have and must protect the profession and patients’ information at all times.    

Mental Health and our understanding 

Mental health and social media are two terms that are often heard in unison and care needs to be taking in our marketing, our use of social media and what we convey. For marketing it allows us to create high visibility to a large network of people, stay competitive in what is often target driven healthcare, create personalised connectivity to our patients and promote treatment and ourselves. Evidence also suggests 64% of twitter users and 51% of Facebook users are more likely to purchase products, services and indeed treatments from businesses they follow on social media. Results can also be achieved with a much smaller budget then traditional marketing, and often social media can be managed by existing members of staff. However, as aforementioned a negative forum can create feelings of inadequacy in colleagues, but also what we post can influence decisions and self-esteem of patients. 42% of those sampled suggested social media has affected their self-esteem and only 36% would be willing to be on the practices social media, but with 81% wishing to see other patient photos and testimonials. Of these willing to provide photos for marketing, 89% would allow smile and teeth only photos, with just 11% allowing full face photos. This information suggests that although patients like to view photos and testimonials on social media most are not willing to have their own image displayed and could give clues on our confidence relating to social media. We must not only be aware of our effect on mental health via social media, but the general effect and how this may influence patients’ expectations and wishes and how these may challenge our clinical judgement and demand for cosmetic treatment. 

It is clear that social media is now ubiquitous with everyday life and is also embedded in healthcare, so we must embrace and manage social media rather then avoiding or shunning it. It can be an extremely powerful vehicle for health promotion, communication and development, but we must remember the risks involved and use only for positivity in dentistry.  


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