By Jeff Livingston, MD, ObGyn and Chief Executive Officer, MacArthur Medical Center

When consumers have a question about a healthcare issue or problem, they often turn to social media for advice. Dr. Mom – the go-to advice-caregiver from childhood – has been replaced. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter make it easy to connect for opinions and advice, helping your patients determine what information to believe. Their networks of friends, family and colleagues are a resource they can access at any time; a resource they can trust – even if it’s wrong. As physicians, we have an opportunity to provide accurate health information to our patients and create a community for them.

I set up the first social media channel for our practice more than 10 years ago. I got the idea from my daughter, who suggested creating a MySpace page as a way to communicate with teens in our area about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, which were growing problems at the time. I had no idea what MySpace was, so I asked her to help create the page. The next time I spoke to a group of high school students, I shared the page, and it went crazy – teenagers started asking all sorts of health questions about private things that they never would have asked in person.

At that point, I was hooked. I saw firsthand how these social media channels could be used by physician practices to disseminate health information and create online communities where patients can share their experiences, and I set out to establish our presence on other social media channels.

How do you get started?

So how do you begin to establish your practice’s social media presence? Social media is meant to extend and enhance what you offer on your website, providing links to and from the site to your social channels. For the sake of this discussion, I will assume you already have a website and are looking to extend your online presence. Here are five easy steps for getting started on social media.

Physicians should take lead role.

Some physicians make the mistake of approaching social media as a marketing tool for the practice and offload the burden of creating content to a marketing agency. I always caution and advise against that. The practice development will come naturally and accidentally because your voice will be real and authentic, and your patients will appreciate it. That will lead to practice growth.

Pick one social media channel you want to try first.

Visit and explore social media channels, and then pick a channel that suits your practice, patients and personality. I don’t think there’s one answer for every practice, but here’s what we’ve found useful for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube:

Facebook is great for developing a community and educating patients.

Despite the fact that we live in a world where no one can talk to anyone and no one has time to do anything, we have created a community and we have created a better experience for patients. Most of our following on Facebook is local. It helps improve our relationship with patients. For example:

  • Patients post pictures of their newborns, saying thank you for the delivery. We comment back how cute their baby is.
  • We share perspectives on current hot topics or ongoing women’s health issues, such as birth control, breastfeeding and a variety of other healthcare topics.
  • We post updates on important health information, such as the availability of vaccines.
  • We highlight anything that our doctors are involved in, for example, if our doctor is giving a lecture at a high school or a church group, or is featured in the local news.

Twitter enables us to share relevant articles and other new online information.

For example, one time there was a controversial news story about new mammogram guidelines, and I imagined a patient Googling that and trying to figure out what to actually pay attention to. There were thousands of articles and blog postings about the topic, so I picked a couple that I liked and sorted through the chaos of the Internet for them. Twitter allows me to share a lot of thoughts that I have or articles that I like really quickly. Where our following on Facebook is local, Twitter is international and includes followers who have identified us as a good resource on women's health topics.

YouTube helps us answer frequently asked questions or discuss common procedures.

We recently recorded a series of videos by our physicians discussing services offered in our office. These don’t have to be big budget productions. You can record with your cell phone in a quiet room. If you can’t get it all in one take, you can edit using any free software that comes with your computer.

Once you get a feel for how the different social media channels work, then you can diversify where you want to put your time and energy.

Divide and conquer by picking out different talents in your group.

Maybe one physician is a great writer, so she’ll be responsible for blog content. Or there’s a physician who likes a particular social media channel, so he’ll take the lead on that. For example, one of our staff members who loves Pinterest took over our page and was able to gain more than 100 followers overnight. 

Commit to keeping it up to date.

Decide how frequently you want to post, and create a calendar of planned content. This can be supplemented with breaking news items that you share.

Promote your social media channels.

Once your channels are live, make sure people can find them. Include links on your website, at your office, in brochures, etc.

What about Privacy?

To me, the issue of privacy is very simple and not controversial: You cannot diagnose, treat or discuss any personal health information in a non-secure environment. So if a patient asks me a very specific question publicly on Facebook, I would need to respond privately and in compliance with privacy regulations. Patients follow the guidelines really well too, since people who are on Facebook understand Facebook. They’re not going to post, “I think I have a sexually transmitted disease, what should I do?” on our wall for the entire world to see. Very rarely has a patient posted something on our page that I thought maybe crossed the line, and when they did, I deleted it immediately.

If you are interested in having private conversations with your patients online, there are many telemedicine platforms available that enable a digital patient relationship. Our practices use a HIPAA-compliant patient portal that provides secure e-mail for our patients to communicate one-on-one with their doctors about specific, private health concerns. The portal also provides patients with access to electronic health records, test results, appointment scheduling and more, which has helped cut down on phone tag while ensuring personal health information remains private and secure behind a firewall.

What’s the ROI?

While it’s difficult to pinpoint a return on investment (ROI) for the time spent maintaining social media channels, they have definitely provided benefits – including patient loyalty (and referrals to friends and family), more efficiency in my office and increases in utilization of services that patients may not have known we have. But to me, the most important ROI is the way the visit goes. By allowing my patients to become engaged in their own healthcare by doing research ahead of time, they come to their visit more prepared to make good decisions. Patients who review treatments ahead of time are more educated so you can spend visit time discussing options instead of giving an overview of treatment.

Conclusion

People use social media every day in all aspects of their lives. Physician practices that embrace social media use have the opportunity to not only educate and create a sense of community with their patients, but define and protect their brand and their image. And remember, it’s not just about the image of your practice; it’s about your image too. If you haven’t Googled yourself, you should. You have an Internet reputation that’s growing around you, and if you’re not engaged, you have no control over the image that’s being created for you by third-party ratings sites and patient reviews. You have a choice to make: You can allow your digital identity to be determined by other people, or you can engage with social media and create your own. So in addition to focusing on social media for your practice, take some time to focus on social media for you. A good place to start is creating a LinkedIn profile. Although it’s not a platform for patient engagement, it’s an important part of preserving and enhancing your digital identity because it has a high visibility on search. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and your digital self will thank you.
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