How Social Media Is Turning Us All Into First Responders

I’m not a doctor or a grief counselor but social media has turned me into one and it is turning us all into first responders, for better or worse.

Last year a friend posted Facebook that she was going to take her daughter, who had a fever, to a minute clinic to get her annual flu shot.  Her reasoning seemed sound at first blush: She was tight on time and her daughter was already sick and already miserable, so why not bite the bullet and do it now?

Several friends had weighed in on her status empathizing with her predicament.  I jumped in an urged her to wait at least 48 hours after her daughter’s fever had broken to have her vaccinated, or at least take her daughter to a walk-in clinic that night where a physician would oversee the immunization.  After my comment, my friend called the on-call nurse who told her the same thing.

Several days ago, while monitoring a hashtag, I saw tweets from a young woman who was clearly in emotional pain and hurting.  I reached out to her, offered her solace and an ear should she ever need it.

I mentioned this to a colleague the other day who had experienced the same thing.  “It’s like social media is turning everyone into triage nurses,” she noted.  We both agreed that the trend had the potential for good and for disaster.

All you have to do is visit the health section of question and answer sites such as Quora andYahoo! Answers to see the number of people who have turned to crowdsourcing their health.  The reasons for this phenomenon are varied, and medical professionals rarely engage on these platforms and respond to questions.  The general public is left to respond and frequently these responses can be less than ideal and at times downright dangerous.

When the Crowd is Wrong

Two months ago Washington, DC was under a tornado warning.  I was working late and no one was left in the office for me to ask for advice.  I did the next best thing and asked Twitter.  Within 60 seconds I had two responses, both advised me to get in my car and drive out of the city.  I did just that only to realize that after 20 minutes that the high winds and debris on the road were much more dangerous than having sheltered in place.

Thirty minutes later I received a tweet from a colleague who is an emergency response specialist advising me to shelter in place.

My crowdsourced first responders were wrong.  They were heartfelt and advised me the best they knew how, but they were still wrong and I still acted on their information.  The result could have been much worse than a long and unnerving commute home.

Actual First Responders Need to Claim a Stake in the Conversation

Social media has shifted the way we seek information, and the immediacy of our access to that information, in a way that medical professionals and emergency responders are just now catching up to.

When I propose engaging and responding to medical or emergency questions online, the first I response I get is typically, “we’ll never get legal clearance to do that!”  The barriers begin to be thrown up, “what if we tell someone to shelter in place, and they’re injured as a result?” “What if we tell them to see their primary care provider in the morning but they actually need emergency care?”  The concern is understandably often for the legal protection of the organization and the individual, and less on the impact of the response.

Lost in translation is that acting as a social media first responder in a professional capacity doesn’t require a diagnosis or a treatment recommendation.   No medical professional should ever diagnose an individual or recommend a treatment plan based on a message board post.  But what happens when an individual asks the crowd a question and the crowd provides a response that may do more harm than good?  What happens when the crowd advises you to drive through the storm as opposed to sheltering in place?

2 thoughts on “How Social Media Is Turning Us All Into First Responders

  1. Very thoughtful post here, Leslie.
    You’re right of course that it’s not wise to actively practice medicine online and make diagnosis based on blog or forum posts. I think the vast majority of trained medical professionals understand that, fortunately.
    With Twitter, Facebook etc though, all sorts of conversations are taking place involving health and it would be great if trained health pros were actively taking part in the discussion (when their busy schedules will allow) to correct the flow of misinformation that abounds online.
    Here’s a link to a article highlighting some doctors that are leading the way in social media engagement. <a href=””></a&gt;
    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community Team
    <a href=””></a&gt;

  2. Great post, Leslie. Some of the more forward thinking in the emergency management field are trying to encourage this because, as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says, the true first responders are the survivors and public on the scene.
    As for some of the concerns you raise, I wonder how much of that is a reaction to the new medium. As someone said during a social media meeting I was in today, “people do dumb things on social media; people also do dumb things on the phone, and in person; that alone is not a reason to forbid using that tool.” So long as a health communicator makes a solid recommendation to see a primary care doc or go to an ED, I wonder how culpable they’d be. It’ll be interesting to see as it becomes more regular and Good Samaritan laws begin being brought into the discussion.

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