Are online surgical discussion boards a safe and useful venue for surgeons to ask for advice? A review of the International Hernia Collaboration Facebook Group

Karla Bernardi, Alexis N Milton, William Hope, John Scott Roth, Shinil K Shah, Puja Shah, Nicole B Lyons, Alexander C Martin, Julie L Holihan, Deepa V Cherla, Tien C Ko, Tyler G Hughes, Mike K Liang
Surgical Endoscopy 2020, 34 (3): 1285-1289

BACKGROUND: Social media is a growing medium for disseminating information among surgeons. The International Hernia Collaboration Facebook Group (IHC) is a widely utilized social media platform to share ideas and advice on managing patients with hernia-related diseases. Our objective was to assess the safety and utility of advice provided.

METHODS: Overall, 60 consecutive de-identified clinical threads were extracted from the IHC in reverse chronological order. A group of three hernia specialists evaluated all threads for unsafe posts, unhelpful comments, and if an established evidence-based management strategy was provided. Positive and negative controls for safe and unsafe answers were included in seven threads and reviewers were blinded to their presence. Reviewers were free to access all online and professional resources (except the IHC).

RESULTS: There were 598 unique responses (median 10, 1-26 responses per thread) to the 60 clinical threads/scenarios. The review team correctly identified all seven positive and negative controls. Most responses were safe (96.6%) but some were unhelpful (28.4%). For sixteen threads, the reviewers believed there was an established evidence-based answer; however, only six were provided. In addition, 14 responses were considered unsafe, but only four were corrected.

CONCLUSIONS: The vast majority of responses were considered helpful; however, evidence-based management is typically not provided and unsafe recommendations often go uncontested. While the IHC allows wide dissemination of hernia-related surgical advice/discussions, surgeons should be cautious when using the IHC for clinical advice. Mechanisms to provide evidence-based management strategies and to identify unsafe advice are needed to improve quality within online forums and to prevent patient harm.

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