Using Social Media in Your Practice to Engage Patients in Their Health
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?
Physicians should take lead role.
Pick one social media channel you want to try first.
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.
YouTube helps us answer frequently asked questions or discuss common procedures.
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.
Commit to keeping it up to date.
Promote your social media channels.
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.