While the majority of doctors who use social media do so for personal reasons, less than half currently use it professionally. But that’s changing — as are the reasons doctors are using social media. A 2012 study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 61 percent of the physician respondents had used social media once a week or more to look for information.

But new survey results from the MedData Group indicate that doctors are now using social media for more, well, social reasons. The top reasons cited for using social media professionally were to keep up with health care news and to engage in online discussions with peers. LinkedIn and online medical communities are the top two social media channels that doctors use for professional reasons. And among the top five specialties that engage in online communities, ophthalmologists are No. 1. So what are these online communities, and what do they offer doctors?

Different types of online communities

QuantiaMD, launched in 2006, was one of the first free online communities for doctors. Its goal was to help busy practitioners share information and collaborate online in order to better serve their patients. Today, QuantiaMD has become one of the largest social networking platform for doctors, with one in three U.S. doctors using either QuantiaMD’s website or mobile application, according to the company.

Quantia has about 1,000 experts who participate in forum discussions on QuantiaMD and lead problem-solving. Organizational partners include the Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

SERMO is another online medical community, with more than 300,000 members in the U.S. According to the company, which bills itself as “a virtual doctors’ lounge,” SERMO is the only online community for doctors that provides anonymity, which allows members to have honest conversations and “speak without fear of repercussions.” This is an advantage for many doctors, since privacy is one of the top two reasons they cite for not using social media (the other being time).

In addition to these communities, there are numerous smaller and more specialized online medical communities. These include ODs on Facebook, where optometrists, opticians, and anyone studying or working in those fields can connect and communicate, and MomMD, a forum and job site for women doctors, residents, medical students, and nurses. There’s even Medical Passions, a social networking and dating site for single medical professionals.

What’s in it for you?

Doctors can certainly network with peers on other social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook, but online communities exclusively for doctors and health care professionals offer benefits those do not: namely, access to timely, relevant, and highly specialized information at your fingertips. Some doctors claim to log in directly from the exam room via smartphone when they’re in need of immediate help with a tough diagnosis.

In addition to collaborating with peers and solving medical problems, online medical communities provide an educational component for members. Experts regularly contribute new content, including short videos and interactive presentations. Some communities even offer CME credits for certain activities. Doximity, which claims to be the largest community of doctors in the country, has partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to offer CME credits.

While Facebook users risk getting sidetracked by the personality quiz of the week or funny cat videos, online medical communities have tighter parameters for their content. QuantiaMD claims that all their content must meet three criteria. It must: help doctors save time, help them generate income, and help them be better doctors. Of course, like any online activity, these communities can be a time-suck if you don’t set limits for yourself. Decide in advance how often you will log on, and when.

What to know before you join

Online medical communities vary in their membership requirements. Some, like Medscape, are open to any health care professionals and do not require any verification or proof of licensing. Others, like SERMO, have an extensive credential verification process. In most cases, you will have to provide your name and contact information and create a login and password. On some sites, you can browse member profiles by specialty before joining to see if any of your colleagues are members.

Most communities are free, since they are subsidized or sponsored by organizations seeking expertise, such as pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and biotechnology firms.

While social media has taken the rest of the world by storm, health care is only just beginning to catch up. But as in other industries, medical professionals are starting to see the value of technology to connect and collaborate with peers, share information, and ultimately, get better results for the patients they serve.

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