Blogs bring new era to medicine

Updated: 2012-01-16 10:03

By Shan Juan and Cheng Yingqi (China Daily)

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BEIJING - An expectant mother was due to deliver soon at the hospital, and her doctor found out that she was still a virgin, reads a post micro-blogged by her doctor.

Doctor Zhang Rongya at the renowned Peking Union Medical College Hospital posted the case on Jan 6 at Sina Weibo, one of China's most popular micro-blogging websites.

Zhang noted in the post that coitus interruptus (withdrawal) is not reliable in preventing pregnancy.

The entry received a lot of attention and has been forwarded by online readers nearly 15,000 times.

Among the more than 3,400 comments left by viewers, there were exclamations - and also accusations against Zhang who has about 70,000 followers, saying that the post was a potential breach of patient privacy.

With many useful tips like how to scientifically feed a baby and how to cope with postpartum depression, her micro-blogging site is among the most popular maintained by medical workers.

Zhang is among hundreds of Chinese medical workers who have taken up micro-blogging on the mainland.

There is no official count of the number of physicians using the Sina micro blog site, but doctors treating chronic diseases and cancer are among the most popular at the site, said Li Na, an editor in the health news department of Sina, which is in charge of the routine maintenance and management of health-related micro blogs.

"The popularity of a physician on a micro blog is largely decided by his or her communication skills, and very active users are usually relatively young, like doctor Zhang," she said.

Li said that among all their medical worker users, 50 percent had registered on their own while others were invited by the website.

Gu Zhongyi, a dietitian at the Beijing Friendship Hospital who has been using the Sina micro blog for more than a year, told China Daily that he was happy having more than 270,000 followers.

"Micro-blogging has helped substantially improve the doctor-patient relationship through enhanced mutual understanding and in my case, it also served as a useful tool helping to schedule patients' visits," he said.

Zeng Xiaopeng, deputy director of the Beijing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who micro-blogs at Sohu, another major micro-blogging service provider on the mainland, said: "I constantly write micro-blog posts to spread knowledge such as ways to keep bugs out of the house. My fans can read the blog and leave their questions, which I can answer later."

He has now nearly 22,600 fans on his Sohu micro blog.

"The micro blog facilitates more interactive communication between me and the public, which is quite different from health seminars only attended by professionals," he said.

At the Sohu micro blog, the number of registered doctors exceeds 200, coming from various disciplines from pediatrics to stomatology.

"The number has kept rising," said Yu Haitao, an employee at the Sohu micro blog.

"Based on our rough calculations, most of our doctor users are about 50 years old and have extensive experience in health promotion and education," he said.

"They are extremely cautious not to reveal any private information about their patients and so far we have not received any complaints concerning the doctors' blogging," he added.

Concerns persist

However, many experts still worry about the potential risks and challenges surrounding doctors' blogging, and they urge proper guidance and management.

"Privacy is one major concern. Another is that doctors may use the mass communication tools to promote certain medicines and hospitals," said Ding Junjie, a professor with the Communication University of China.

"Although we already have strict rules regulating such advertisements in traditional media, we have no such rules for micro blog use," he said.

So far, there are no evidence-based guidelines or regulations to guide medical professionals on the use of social media in general.

Potential challenges from medical micro-blogging are not unique to China.

According to a US survey published in 2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 60 percent of the medical school deans polled reported incidents by their students involving unprofessional postings on various social networking sites.

Some 13 percent admitted to incidents that violated patient privacy, it said.

Regarding doctor Zhang and the virgin birth, "that was a bit inappropriate and might cause lawsuits", Chen Wei, a lawyer from the Yingke Law Firm in Beijing, told China Daily.

"If she mentioned clearly that the woman was one of her patients, others might easily track her, which might be against her will and cause her trouble," she explained.

In such a case, the patient could sue the doctor for violation of privacy, she said.

Also, posting photos of patients, even without showing the face, is risky, she added.

"Platforms like micro blogs are actually powerful public forums and doctors should use them with caution," she said.

Ding agreed, though he said that he recognized the merits of doctors' micro-blogging activity.

"Since quality medical resources are limited, micro-blogging as a means to relieve the ever-increasing pressure on public hospitals could be a good alternative," he said.

For example, Liu Weizhong, health bureau chief of Gansu province, pioneered in getting more than 10,000 local veteran doctors to micro-blog, which helps the public with scientific know-how and disease prevention knowledge.

"That would surely benefit people, but it could not replace seeing a doctor at a hospital," Liu said.

Ding agreed, saying: "What we need is just a little more regulation, for example restricting qualification evaluations on doctors' micro blogs".

Solutions developing

On Jan 10, Deng Haihua, spokesman of the Ministry of Health, said: "We've noticed that a rising number of health-related micro blogs were well-received by the general public."

However, "management and supervision over them have to be strengthened", he noted.

Despite a lack of related laws and regulations, the ministry takes the basic view that doctors could not practice medicine on a micro blog, he stressed.

Ma Changsheng, a cardiologist at Anzhen Hospital in Beijing, however, thought otherwise.

"Even if it's not exactly on a micro blog, online health service represents a trend. Most patients don't actually need to come to the hospital", he said.

"A regulated, fee-charging online service might be a good way to make medical resources more efficient," he said.

Last week, the Beijing health bureau convened its first meeting on micro-blogging by doctors and hospitals.

According to an employee surnamed Chen from the Peking Union Medical College Hospital's information office, who attended the meeting, the capital health authorities generally encourage medical micro-blogging.

"But they are at the same time mulling over guidelines and regulations", she said.

At the Peking Union hospital, self-management and supervision has already begun, she noted.

She said that since May, the hospital has assigned special staff to maintain and update the hospital's official micro blog and follow micro blogs, especially by active doctors.

Unprofessional conduct such as breaching patient privacy and making a diagnosis is prohibited on micro blogs, she said.

"Given that it's a new phenomenon we are still groping for better use of the platform," she added.