There’s no question that social media have brought radical changes to the way we communicate with each other, the way professionals disseminate information, and the way businesses promote themselves. We share photos. We share opinions. We hype our companies and our events.

How about healthcare information? Is Facebook a good place to find out about what ails you?

The answer, according to a recent Harvard study, is “no.” Which, in our opinion, is good news for doctors and responsible healthcare marketers.

First, a little background. It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that lots of people are hanging out on Facebook–but the extent to which we’re using Facebook is downright shocking. A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that¬†nearly 25 percent of all U.S. web traffic went to Facebook.

It’s also clear that people are using the web for healthcare information; this more-than-a-year-old Pew Research study showed that 61 percent of American adults look online for medical help–and that number has almost certainly grown in the past year. (Note:¬†a Google study showed that 86 percent of physicians use the web to get healthcare information–and 65 percent of primary care doctors use the web to search for healthcare information more than once a day. Why would doctors expect patients to do otherwise?) It only stands to reason that they’d be looking for medical information and advice on Facebook, where they’re already spending much of their time.

In fact, thousands of people are routinely getting health information from Facebook–and it isn’t very good. A recent study by Harvard found that Facebook communities dedicated to diabetes were full of questionable advice and pitches for non-FDA-approved products. Facebook users are getting lots of anecdotal information, lots of emotional support, and lots of suggestions to purchase products that probably won’t do them any good.

We’d suggest this is an opportunity for caring, qualified doctors to get involved and assert their influence. Clearly, there’s a need; the fifteen groups studied by Harvard averaged more than 9,000 members. A little timely advice from a knowledgeable professional can go a long way toward combatting quacks who are trying to take advantage of unsuspecting, vulnerable patients–and provide Facebook users with information they can use to manage their conditions.

Clearly, the professional community agrees; in fact, the American Medical Association just adopted new policies to help doctors maintain a professional online presence. Of course, doctors should be careful about how they communicate online–but then, so should we all. Just because you have to be smart and responsible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

Now, here’s the question healthcare marketers really want to answer: can Facebook help doctors and hospitals attract new patients?

Of course, it can. Facebook is a powerful word-of-mouth marketing tool. People refer to doctors they know and trust–and one great place to gain prominence and influence is Facebook. According to the Digital Influence Index, “75 percent of consumers view companies with microblog accounts as more deserving of their trust than those without. An equal percentage are pleased that organizations are monitoring microblogs and listening to what consumers have to say.” This, we infer, extends to physicians. We like and trust doctors who communicate and listen.

Case in point: Dr. Alan Glazier, founder of Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care, ditched his expensive Yellow Pages and Google Adwords campaigns in favor of social marketing–with great results. His mantra is “create original content, optimize it, and proliferate it,” largely through the intelligent use of social media. Does it have to be a time suck? No. Glazier says he spends about 30 minutes a day on social media for his practice.

Facebook is simply too big to ignore–and the opportunities for doctors to have a positive impact on their profession and their own practices are tremendous, as well. By responsibly sharing up-to-date, timely health information, healthcare providers can become more prominent and influential and help more patients than ever before. The fact that Facebook is currently a questionable source for healthcare information means that now’s the time for doctors to get involved.