In August, a doctor in Spain posted x-ray and microscopic pictures from a man's thigh on Twitter, asking for help. The physician was concerned that he had cancer. But the images that pathologist Jerad Gardner saw on his screen in Little Rock, Ark., reminded him of something else he had come across a few times — a benign tumor that looked like a rare form of cancer. He suggested the Spanish doctor perform a molecular DNA test. It ultimately revealed that the tumor wasn't cancerous.
No one thinks that doctors should make a diagnosis via Twitter. But there is a growing movement to use social media to share information. And Gardner, an associate professor of pathology and dermatology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is one of the pioneers, building a community of followers and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook.
"Dr. Gardner is a leader in approaching diagnoses in new ways, embracing the latest technologies and innovations medicine has at its fingertips, " says Dr. R. Bruce Williams, president of the College of American Pathologists, an organization that advances the practice of pathology and laboratory science.
"I'm no stranger to criticisms about social media. It's been a long uphill fight to convince my colleagues that this is something we should do and I know there are still naysayers. Most of those are people who don't actually use social media so they don't really understand how it works." says Dr. Gardner.
In terms of privacy, he says that images where identifying information is left out "do not require patient permission to post on social media, either ethically or legally." An article he co-authored, published in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, states that images omitting a patient's identifying details on social media, just like in medical journals, don't violate privacy law.
In Gardner's view, it's a good thing if "everything on social media is public. If I do something wrong other people can call me out on it immediately." He adds that the immediacy and wide reach of social media offer benefits not found in medical journals — but with caveats.
Follow Dr. Gardner on twitter