7 social media mistakes made in health care

If you’re a health care professional, chances are you know a bit about social media, possibly feel compelled to use it sometimes and you might actually be participating in the Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/blog revolution.

But there can be real problems in using social media in the health care context. Whether you are in private practice or work for a group of large hospital network, social media mistakes can be costly in terms of misrepresenting your specialty, breaching patient confidentiality, or limiting your business growth. Do you make the following mistakes when using social media?

1.  Avoidance.  Most health care professionals wish social media didn’t exist.  They see it as confusing and a distraction.  The questions about how, when and why social media is important and useful give them indigestion and some go to great lengths to tell others to” just say no”  to all thing social media. The problem with this is social media exists for millions of people (500 million on Facebook alone) and to ignore all things social media is to ignore your patients’ needs and a wide-range of new business development opportunities.

If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t a total avoider, but reading and engaging are two very different things.  Social media is here to stay. Your clients and patients probably use it more than you can even imagine. If you hear colleagues “pooh-pooh”ing social media, correct them quickly.  It’s here, it’s real, it’s a force to be reckoned with and made your own.

2. Fear. After avoidance, many health care professionals move to the stage of reluctant acceptance, but aren’t happy about it.  They are ignorant of why social media is important or how to effectively leverage it to help their patients and grow their practice.Ignorance plus anxiety = fear and we’ve got a lot of fear in health care about social media.   But the fear seems silly from some of the most educated and intelligent people on the planet. I mean, we are not born to do heart or brain surgery (and I sure as hell fear the idea of me doing any kind of surgery), support someone through a suicidal crisis or diagnose schizophrenia. We had to learn how to do these things over time. So too social media.  The sky is not falling. You can learn how to do social media well and effectively. Learning is kinda your thing.

It does take courage to try something new and work at it until we see a positive return.  Will you be a courageous health care provider and learn, experiment and grow via social media?

3. Sloth. Doing social media well is work. Not save-a-life work or Alaskan salmon fishing work, but it requires time, thought and energy.  I hear many health care professionals bemoan the fact that “social media is hard work,” and then vent on and on about the unfairness of health care reform, patients not valuing them, the jerks over at health care insurance companies 1,2 and 3.

It’s important to remember that we all have the same number of hours in a day. Someone who spends an hour writing and talking about negative stuff has wasted 60 minutes of their life.  Another person who uses that time to connect with people is doing a service and building their future. Use your time wisely, work to achieve positive goals. How are you currently using your time?

4. Narcissism. Many health care professionals see Twitter as the place where people talk about their life and what they had for lunch. One of my colleagues has this as his email signature: “Follow me on Twitter: I’ll tell you how I feel.”  Ugh. Narcissistic.  Why? First, he doesn’t get it, second, instead of trying to learn more and understand, he mocks it and looks foolish.  (As an aside if you don’t understand a technology, it is best to say nothing, rather than look stupid in front of colleagues who do understand … just saying.)

Despite how it may seem, social media is not about you. No one reading your wall or tweets really cares about how you feel.  Social media is about making connections, helping others with useful information, sharing ideas and building business opportunities.  If you’re not into doing the above things, by all means avoid social media. But if you want to touch lives and grow professionally, social media is a neat way to jump start the process.

5. Selfishness. Social media is about giving. Giving great content, information, tips that people can use to live a better, healthier life. Sharing articles and info from other sources that you know will help your readers.  The more you give, the more people follow you and when you make an offer to sell a service or product, your followers are so impressed with your quality as a person and a professional, they can’t wait to pay to get more support and help from you.

Social media is not advertising, nor is it your personal water cooler.  Selfish use of social media includes only broadcasting your articles and blog posts, using Twitter as an advertisement stream rather than an opportunity for connection. If you stream only includes your posts about your business and you, take note.  The most powerful use of Twitter is when you use the retweet (RT) and the @ reply.  The people who are leveraging Twitter to the max say that they retweet and reply 90% of the time, with only 10% of their tweets about their own stuff.  Share, converse, introduce people to one another .. you’ll get so much more out of the social media experience.  How do you give on social media?

6. Unethical shenanigans. Social media can be used unethically. The problem is,most health care professionals don’t realize when they are being unethical online.  So let’s try to make this simple. It is unethical to breach your clients’ confidentiality online.  Do not, under any circumstances mention your clients’ experiences or demographics in your social media space.

Another unethical move is to tell your clients how to use social media vis-a-vis your professional relationship. Why? By doing this you are misusing your position of power in the treatment dynamic.

Let’s talk about this for a bit.

Some mental health professionals want to develop social media policies and often these policies say things like, “I have a Twitter account, but if I find you’re following me I’ll remove you,” or “I’m on Facebook, but you can’t friend me because it could be a breach of confidentiality.”

At first glance these statements seem ok, until you think about what the professional is saying here.  Essentially she’s saying “I have a social media life and you can’t participate. I will tell you how to engage in social media.”  The problem is, social media is free and open access. When you have an open Twitter account you imply that anyone who wants to can follow you.  Otherwise, you can make the account private.  So while you can prevent your clients from calling you at home or knowing where you live, you really can’t tell them what to do in social media if you have public accounts.  Well, you can try to tell them what to do but how does that impact your relationship and how do you enforce it?

The attraction of social media is it puts all of us on an equal playing field. There is no cost to entry. If I want to follow Lance Armstrong, President Obama, or musician John Mayer, I can.  When we try to tell our clients what to do in the social media space we are abusing our power. If you’re not comfortable with the openness of this, privatize your accounts or simply don’t participate.

One more unethical trap: Googling clients.  Awhile ago this was a topic of discussion in mental health circles.  Some argued that, in cases of emergency, it’s acceptable to Google a client to get more information. I disagree.  It’s a violation of privacy and opens you up to a pandora’s box of legal liabilities.

7.  Lack of imagination. This may be the worse sin of all.  I’ve realized over the last few months just how powerful social media can be to influence people’s ideas, change behavior and educate large groups of people.  We in health care get so stuck on the first 6 sins in this list that we don’t consider all of the positive possibilities. We stop at simplistic uses, put up barriers by citing HIPAA,  wait for someone more official than we are to give us permission, and essentially stop growth for ourselves and our clients. It’s frustrating.

What if we saw social media as a problem solver? What if we devised ways to use it to educate, inform, treat and improve lives?  What if we become open to the possibilities and then grapple with the confidentiality and access issues?  In health care we tend to put the cart before the horse. We think, “How can this all go wrong?” before we imagine how the world will look if it all goes right.

We can send humans into space for months at a time, do all our banking securely online and video chat with people on the other side of the world. I think we can find a way to make the technology of social media work for health care. Don’t you?

Susan Giurleo is a psychologist who blogs at the BizSaavy Therapist.

Submit a guest post and be heard.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • http://www.epmonthly.com/whitecoat WhiteCoat

    Just curious –
    Can you please elaborate on how Googling patients “opens you up to a pandora’s box of legal liabilities”?
    Can you provide us with a case in which a medical provider has been successfully sued for Googling a patient?

  • http://www.occampm.com/blog Michelle W

    I’m having difficulty with #6 on the list, specifically the concept of doctors and patients “Friending.” From what I’ve seen, the Twitter example might have merit, since that seems to have been a more public broadcast tool from the get-go. But I’m not sure doctors should be required to “Friend” patients, or even that this is the best idea to pursue.

    As an example: say a student gets a Facebook account in high school or college, long before he or she goes into the medical field. This account is primarily for family and close friends. Eventually that student graduates from med school, completes an internship, and opens a practice. Potential patients search for this person on Facebook. Does this provider now have an obligation to open his or her social life to those patients? That scenario is one that’s going to come up more and more as the newer generation of doctors are Facebook users before becoming licensed.

    It seems the more appropriate path might be for the practice to have a page and for patients to “fan” or “like” the practice, rather than “friend” the person. Of course, I’m speaking out of a lot of ignorance since I personally don’t have a Facebook account. Others might be able to address the question with more expertise.

  • http://amjmed.blogspot.com American Journal of Medicine

    Fascinating post on social media.

    The American Journal of Medicine has a blog (mostly to publicize the journal and our website– probably breaking your rules– and to spark conversation about research), but the editors have shied away from twitter or facebook. Other academic journals have facebook pages, but I wonder how effective they really are. Would a facebook page build brand loyalty for the journal among younger physicians? Do medical students and young doctors use facebook to keep in touch with friends and find a good happy hour location– or to find out about the latest medical research?

    On Twitter, it seems like a huge time sink– although I do enjoy reading the medical tweet round-ups on other medical blogs.

    I believe that with social media there is a fine line between being entertaining and/or informative or just annoying.

  • http://www.nallyfamilypractice.blogspot.com Adam Nally

    Great food for thought. As a doc “newer” in the social media spheres, I appreciate the advise and appreciate the candor. Thanks.

  • http://www.joshchandlerva.com/social-media-publicity.html Josh Chandler


    It’s official, the more withdrawn you are from the social media industry, the harder it is to understand how and why it can help you.

    Healthcare is certainly a sector where medical professionals would have to tread very carefully. It’s not likely that they would use a Twitter profile to provide customer support like Starbucks or ComCast.

    They deal with confidential information and to be honest, I’d think they perhaps care more about the patient then updating their Twitter profile.

    My thought is that they should build out community platforms on their websites such as Weare.us has done. This way, it is up to the patient on how much they share, rather then medicial centres publicily assuming it is OK.

  • http://www.DocRate.net Angela N. Vance

    I run a site that is specifically for physician use, but I network and market through facebook, twitter, LinkedIn and anything I am able. The act of utilizing social media as a mass communication tool is genius, and anyone who hides from it will be left in the dust.

    I maintain a personal account under my maiden name that I keep seperate from my ‘business’ accounts on all sites, in order to avoid too much of my personal information, random thoughts, etc., becoming part of my image.

    In my opinion, individuals in any profession can benefit from social media if they maintain the business identity seperate from the avatar that “has a date tonight with a super hot guy”. It is not impossible. I have even had some friends make it from my business networking to my personal friend page in the process.

  • http://wellescent.com/health_blog Wellescent Health Blog

    For at least a part of the content that they provide, doctors can make use of quality content providers if they decide that they wish to have a social media presence. Otherwise, unless they are prolific in the creation of content, these health providers can easily find themselves at a loss for content that communicates at level that most patients understand. The key is finding content sources that follow quality standards.

  • Ryan

    Susan– these are great points. I spend a lot of time researching social media information and I constantly come across the issue of laziness. Social media is constantly evolving and it takes effort and time to put in the research. One of the cool sources I found was this blog, if you’re interested. Thanks again for the great post!

  • http://chefshie.wordpress.com Steven Shie


    As much as I want more docs to embrace the social space, I don’t think there’s any problem for docs to not participate in social media. I agree with several of your points, but I believe doctors will feel comfortable to use social media when they are ready and whey they feel they need to. After all, we evaluate a doctor based on his/her skills of treating patients, not the expertise of tweeting or facebooking, if there’s such expertise.

Most Popular