Continuing medical educators are just now beginning to experiment with how social media can enhance the educational experiences they provide to healthcare professionals. In July, we invited two experts in social media and CME to join us for a webinar exploring how physicians are using social media, and how you may be able to incorporate the technology into your educational offerings. (An archive of the webinar, which was hosted by MeetingsNet, can be accessed for free here.)

The questions were flying fast and furious during the session and in the Q&A afterward as the faculty members explored social media trends in medicine, CME, and medical meetings. They also talked about how you can integrate social media channels to improve participation, learning, and outcomes. Here are the top 10 questions, with answers from the presenters: Brian S. McGowan, PhD, CCMEP, and Joseph Kim, MD, MPH. McGowan is an adult medical education specialist who in addition to being the social media columnist for Medical Meetings, is the chairman of the Emerging Technologies Committee for the Alliance for CME and serves as director, Medical Education Group, Oncology, with Pfizer, Inc. Kim is CEO of education company and publisher Medical Communications Media. He serves on the board of directors for the National Association of Medical Education Companies, and in 2011 received the Alliance for CME President's Award because of his participation in the Alliance for CME Social Media Work Group.

If you don’t see your question answered here, feel free to leave a comment below, or post it to the #SoMeCME hashtag on Twitter, where our presenters and others interested in the intersection of social media and CME are continuing the conversation.

1. What are the main benefits of adding a social media piece to continuing medical education activities?
McGowan: Social media can support the healthcare community’s professional development: When 50 percent of healthcare providers have used Wikipedia in practice and 61 percent of adult patients look online for health information, the CME community is failing to stop information-seeking HCPs from relying on less credible and less regulated sources of medical education by not adopting social media. That being said, we do not yet have definitive data that proves any benefit of adding social media to traditional education. What we do know is that interactivity and learner engagement are key to learning, and it seems pretty safe to assume that some, if not many, learners will appreciate the interactivity and engagement that social media offers.

2. Do you see any drawbacks to incorporating social media into continuing medical education?
Kim: One of the biggest drawbacks right now is a lack of understanding within the healthcare community around what social media is—and what it isn’t. Between Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) concerns around patient privacy and cases of physicians and nurses losing their jobs over posts on Facebook, there is a lot of hesitation about jumping onto social media platforms. There also are some less technologically savvy healthcare professionals who might need to learn how to use the technology. It’s up to us in the CME profession to educate healthcare professionals about how they can safely use social media to increase their knowledge, and to share how they implement what they’ve learned in their practices so that the learning can continue to grow virally.

3. How do you think physicians currently are using social media? How about five years from now?
McGowan: We currently don’t have consistent data on how docs use social media. This will change this fall when we present recently completed research at the Medicine 2.0 meeting at Stanford University. The purpose of the study was to identify factors associated with the adoption and use of social media to share medical information; it used a theoretical framework to identify factors and predict HCP adoption and use of social media.

That being said, it seems that, right now, docs are using it professionally in three distinct ways:
1) Patient care: There have been a few high-profile instances where docs are engaging patients directly and addressing clinical issues in the very public social media forum—this is a risky proposition and is generally frowned upon.

2) Patient education: Perhaps the most prominent current professional use is to use social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter as low-cost and effective educational channels to put new medical or scientific reports in context.

3) Lifelong learning: The use that is of the greatest interest to this conversation is that social media provide a new way to share and exchange medical information between docs. Social media should offer docs an opportunity to network and share that was never before possible.

4. Are Facebook or any of the other main social media sites appropriate places to duplicate the kind of peer-to-peer physician discussions that you see on online physician communities such as Sermo?
Kim: I think that they’re probably not the most appropriate place because all that information is public, and a patient or an attorney could use what you post there against you as a HIPPA violation. Those networks are more appropriate for disseminating information, and maybe talking about things related to practice management or clinical workflow, although that also could also get to be dangerous.

McGowan: An interesting side note: The New England Journal of Medicine now has a commenting feature for articles on its Web site, and it also posts most of its articles on its Facebook page, where people also can comment. The Web site only averages two to four comments per article; its Facebook page averages about 100 comments per article. However, there isn’t much in the comments on Facebook that physicians could learn from because the comments don’t tend to be clinically focused.

5. What do you think about the potential for CME in the latest entry into the social media world, Google+?
Kim: I think it’s too soon to tell. Google+ is still very new, and people are already having trouble keeping up with all the social media platforms that already exist. Most people tend to just use one or two instead of being active on all of them. People who are already comfortable with Skype and webcams may use some of the Google+ features, such as hangouts and circles, to share.

McGowan: The CME community hasn’t even taken advantage of all the channels we have now, such as the Alliance for CME’s new Web site communities and the CME LinkedIn group. Because Google+ allows you to create more specific and exclusive channels, which would help mitigate credibility and privacy issues, it may accelerate the adoption for some. But given how limited the CME community’s use of our current social learning channels have been, I don’t have high hopes that Google+ will take off in the CME community in the near future.

6. Speaking of currently available resources, what is the Alliance for CME doing to help CME providers move deeper into the social media world and produce activities that include social components?
McGowan: The Alliance’s main push right now is to add value its members, so much of this is only available to Alliance members. In late October, we’ll be hosting at least one webinar on how to use technology in education. At the annual meeting in January, there will be a track specifically focused on new technologies and social media in medical education. We will have a three-and-a-half-hour pre-conference on the first day, focusing on technology in education. The board also has approved a plan to have a resource booth near the registration area where you can schedule one-on-one training on how to use social media, and brainstorm different ways to use the technology.

7. Should major healthcare associations such as the American Medical Association issue social media guidelines for their members?
McGowan: There are a great number of publicly available social media policies, including many from within the medical and educational professions. I do believe that having and enforcing a policy is important; I have watched more than a few individuals get themselves in a jam because of poor decisions they have made quite publicly via social media. Remember, though, that social media are just channels for communication. Experience suggests that the types of things that get people using social media in trouble are probably already addressed in existing policies within your organization.

8. Do you think there should be the possibility of earning AMA PRA Category 1 credit for participating in social media activities?
McGowan: The AMA currently does not recognize the types of sharing and conversations that may take place via social media channels as worthy of credit, and it is hard to see a feasible way to engineer or track credit-worthy conversation. But it is important to see social media as more than Facebook or Sermo—social media includes Web 2.0 functions like commenting, sharing (for example, retweeting or curating), and ranking or voting up good content. I hope the community will begin to see the tremendous value in the collective interpretation of new information. Being able to share short comments or recommend new data is a great start and may connect one group of professionals to lessons that another group have professionals has already evaluated.

9. How are commercial supporters reacting to the idea of social media showing up in grant requests?
McGowan: These are my opinions not those of my employer. If the commercial supporter looks at this intelligently, it will view this type of educational intervention platform the same as it would a webinar or a lecture series. There is a little sensitivity because of its public nature, but that shouldn’t be a large factor. Supporters should review the request based on the evidence that supports the need for using social media for the activity; until there’s data suggesting social media is an effective educational tool, expect commercial supporters to be skeptical. By this time next year, I expect we will have some data about the value of adding social media to CME from studies that Dr. Kim and others at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network are conducting in collaboration with professional social networking venues such as Sermo, Medscape’s Physicians Connect, and QuantiaMD.

10. If clinicians increasingly rely on social networking with their peers for information/education, rather than on academic/content matter experts, what are the implications for CME?
Kim: I don’t think clinicians will be relying exclusively on their colleagues and peers for clinical information, especial in today’s evidence-based medicine climate. Hopefully we’ll see an increase in CME, especially digital and online CME, as clinicians share, “Hey, I did this activity and it was great” with their peers.

McGowan: Remember that there is more information available now than any one physician can manage. Over the next few years we’re going to find ourselves having to build a rapid-learning healthcare system that will allow us to sort all this information and use it effectively. But we can’t build that rapid-learning healthcare system until both the clinician and CME communities have embraced a social learning culture. We have to be leading this effort—we have to make it who we are. Whether it’s CME-credit-worthy social media utilization or just shifting to a culture of sharing, we need to make that cultural shift to get to where we need to go.