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Is social media hurting dentistry? Potential solutions (part 2)

Feb. 21, 2021
Yes. Social media can cause problems. Dr. Chris Salierno believes dentists should remain professional while sharing and commenting on industry-related content.
Chris Salierno, DDS, Chief Editor, Dental Economics

In part 1 of this two-part article, I described the problem that social media presents for the dental community. We must maintain standards of care, but we must do so while treating each other as colleagues. A brief journey onto social media platforms will show that we have a long way to go—displays of heated and rude arguments that would seemingly lead to blows if they were in person, dentists sharing poor clinical outcomes and seeking praise, and even borderline unethical patient care. Critique is necessary to maintain standards, but we must strive to do so online with the same level of respect we demonstrate in person at our local study clubs.

In this article, I’ll share some guidelines for more civilized critique on social media. I do not presume to be an authority for our profession or on communication techniques. My hope is to contribute to a discussion our profession should be having right now.

I believe there are two great faults with social media that challenge our professionalism. First, there are no verbal or nonverbal cues. Without hearing a gentle tone or seeing a smile, we are left to interpret the words in a post in a manner that may not have been intended. Second, social media content is disposable. We can be overwhelmed with the volume of cases being posted and the long threads of comments that they generate and, while waiting in line for coffee, we may write a short post to add to the discussion. We may think nothing of our contribution and therefore put little effort into its design.

With these fundamental flaws in mind, here are my suggestions for content creators (original posters of content) and for the audience that engages with that content.

For content creators

Imagine presenting a case from the podium at the annual American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry meeting. There you are, in front of hundreds of dentists, the spotlight shining in your eyes. You fumble with the clicker in your hand, take a deep breath, and lean into the microphone to begin your presentation. What if you were to click through two before-and-after slides and say, “This case is pure fire. Mad respect to my lab technician. Peace and love.” Then you stand back and wait for questions from the audience.

You’d probably get booed, and you would deserve it. Yet this is the same level of thought and preparation we see in some social media posts.

We’ve been trained to present cases to our colleagues with a degree of formality and comprehensiveness. Gifted lecturers lead their audiences on a journey, telling stories to add color, and pulling lessons together that inspire as much as they educate. Unfortunately, the truncated nature of social media posts means we must be economical with our words. It’s hard to tell the full story when we present a case in these forums. So, whatever story you’re trying to tell, please realize that you may need to answer several questions from the audience to fill in the gaps. Don’t interpret these questions as being hostile; people are just curious to learn about what you haven’t been able to share.

Next, I urge content creators to ask themselves a simple question before they post: why are you posting this case? If it’s just to brag about your skills, then you should expect some criticism. If it’s to teach, then please make sure you’re actually teaching. Add photos that show steps, discuss what material you’re using, and here’s a big one . . . consider discussing your mistakes.

Finally, if you learn you’ve created a post that demonstrates dentistry that is beneath the standard of care, there is no shame in deleting the post. Alternatively, you could choose to edit it with an update about what you’ve learned, and this can serve as an example to others.

For the audience

As I said, we need to be mindful that our written words may be read with unintended heat. Short or vague comments can be read incorrectly. If you’re taking the time to respond to a post or comment, take some additional time to ensure that the comment is not argumentative or condescending. This isn’t about coddling some internet stranger; this is about acknowledging the limitations of social media and treating a colleague with an abundance of respect. Edit yourself so that you could read your words aloud to a live audience and not be embarrassed.

When in doubt, private message the poster. Another danger of social media is that conversations are recorded for all to see. If you have serious concerns about quality of work, a private message with a suggestion to remove or edit the post is professional and will probably be better received by the content creator. We need to maintain our clinical standards; therefore, critique is a necessary part of the process. It just doesn’t have to be public.

I’m now ready to answer the question posed in the headline: Is social media hurting dentistry? Like many technologies, social media is a double-edged sword. It can elevate us, or it can reveal the worst in us. I do believe social media is currently having a negative effect on our professionalism and standards of care.

But we can absolutely change that. While the rest of society figures out how to use social media safely, we can at least heed the call of our profession and hold ourselves to a higher standard, such as the ADA’s Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct. We can create content with the best of intentions and then accept constructive criticism graciously when it is offered. We can realize the limitations of social media compared to traditional forums and take the proper precautions in our comments. We can demonstrate the highest levels of professionalism while we help our colleagues learn.

Chris Salierno, DDS, is the chief editor of Dental Economics and the editorial director of the Principles of Practice Management and Group Practice and DSO Digest e-newsletters. He is also a contributing author for DentistryIQ and Perio-Implant Advisory. He lectures and writes about practice management and clinical dentistry. Additional content is available on his blog for dentists at ToothQuest. Dr. Salierno maintains a private general practice in Melville, New York. You may email him at [email protected].