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Alan Greene talks about Medicine 2.0 and the future of doctor-patient communication

The role of social media and Web 2.0 technologies in health care is a hot topic these days. From its usefulness in tracking health trends to the ethical dilemmas it poses when physicians get too buddy-buddy with their patients online, this role is a complex one. While the Internet is a powerful source of sometimes life-saving information, it is also host to a fair amount of misinformation and has the potential to complicate doctor-patient relationships.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital pediatrician Alan Greene, MD, is a pioneer in web-based medical information. Since 1995, Dr. Greene's website has featured general pediatric health information as well as a community page that encourages parents to answer one another's questions based on their own experience and knowledge. I spoke with Dr. Greene, who will be discussing the nuances and the future of online doctor-patient communication in this year's Medicine 2.0 conference.

A recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that online resources, including advice from peers, are a significant source of health information in the U.S. How can doctors help patients interpret online health information and identify credible sources?

Patients are going online to learn about health conditions before contacting a physician. What they find online might be great, not so good, or even dangerous. As doctors, we can help provide online resources we trust and simple materials to teach patients how to read critically and evaluate health resources.

More and more patients are going to social networking sites rather than content sites. The best way to make a difference there is to be part of the conversation yourself.

As a physician, you are very active in engaging with patients on the web. What are some examples of how you've used social media tools to inform and empower patients?

In 1995, the pace of private practice became relentless for me. I found myself repeating the same shallow crust of information again and again. I felt like there had to be a better way to connect deeply with my patients. I happened to be practicing in San Mateo, halfway between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Many of the parents of my patients were deeply involved in the early development of the Web. One of these families suggested that we start a website.

I jumped in, answering my patients' questions. I soon found out that parents all over the world were looking for answers and a way to connect. In 1996, I closed my practice to new patients and began really engaging with patients online. One of the first things people wanted were forums and chat. We hosted those from the earliest days.

In the '90s and much of the last decade, the web was the place to be. Now it's mobile and social networking. As Twitter, Facebook, and now Google+ became the places people were spending their time, I went to those places. More recently, I've joined forces with a start-up called HealthTap. It is a free social networking platform for physicians to engage with patients and potential new patients. HealthTap was developed to give doctors a quick and easy online social media presence with a very low barrier to entry and investment of time.

Another Pew Internet & American Life Project survey shows that teens continue to be avid users of social networking websites. As a pediatrician, how have you found social media to be an effective way of connecting with younger patients?

Facebook and other social media platforms have been a wave transforming the way people connect. The youth were the first adopters. They often know how to use the platform to the greatest advantage. It's easier, more efficient, more effective and more fun than traditional ways of connecting with young patients. Beyond this, when you do see them in the office it allows you to tailor the visit to be more productive.

Some physicians and health-care providers have expressed ethical concerns or the potential to compromise patient privacy when using Facebook, Twitter or blogs. What's your approach to addressing these challenges?

Dealing with privacy in a public forum, and providing tailored actionable information without diagnosing or treating, is an important new skill set for the 21st century. This new "screenside manor" is not difficult, but must be learned as there are several pitfalls.

What does "Medicine 2.0" mean to you?

We're living in an exciting time in the history of medicine. Mobile connectivity, social networking, and the explosion of available health information are revolutionizing the practice of medicine. We've gone from medical information in the hands of the few to a glut of health-related information. Information has become a commodity. In this age of Medicine 2.0, our new roles are more important than ever.

More news about the Medicine 2.0 conference at Stanford is available in the Medicine 2.0 category. Regular registration for the conference ends Monday.

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