I have spent the better part of the past three years describing within the pages of this magazine how we should be thinking beyond social media to understand the value of connections. I have suggested that we should think about how the social graph that new technologies enable may be used to our benefit—and to the benefit of our meetings, our education, or even the care we may provide as clinicians. It is the emerging social network that is the real value proposition in social media.

I have tried to be clear that my hypothesis is not grounded in obvious evidence, but that there are pieces of evidence that can be strung together if you look hard enough and in enough places. I believe that when the science of social networks is understood and blended with the science of behavior change, then almost anything is possible—I believe it, though the prior evidence may seem to some to be paper-thin. As a scientist it is critical that I acknowledge the limitations of my hypotheses.

However, in the past few months three data sets have been published that should be taken as the definitive answer to the question: What is the value of social networks on healthcare and healthcare education? Here are some highlights.

Perception = reality
In our recent paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, we showed that more than 60 percent of physicians using social media as an element of their lifelong learning felt that their social media engagement improved their professional productivity and improved the care they provide to their patients.

Location = innovation  
A paper in Academic Medicine explained that, while traditional train-the-trainer courses caused faculty members to believe they are more innovative, in reality it is the shape and structure of a faculty member’s social graph that ultimately determined their degree of innovation.

Structure = healthcare quality
In a third paper in Medical Care, one standard deviation in the median number of connections per physician (network redundancy) was associated with a 17.8 percent increase in total spending, in addition to 17.4 percent more hospital days, and 23.8 percent more physician visits.

So there you have it—physicians think social media makes them better docs. In reality, it is their place within their social networks that help them innovate. And the end result is that a better structured social network improves healthcare quality and decreases healthcare costs (by nearly 20 percent).

So the next time someone tells you that social media as a waste of time, tell them that while the media themselves may seem unnatural at first, the networks they enable may very well be the secret to innovation and our long-term professional success.

Or just tell them to come to me…  

Brian S. McGowan, PhD, has dedicated the past 12 years to medical education as a faculty member, mentor, accredited provider, and commercial supporter. The opinions expressed are McGowan’s and do not represent the views of past, current, or future employers. Contact him via Twitter: @BrianSMcGowan.