5 ways to make social media work for doctors and their patients

There’s no question that social media is taking root in the healthcare field, and will only continue to grow in importance.  According to a recent Pew Internet survey, four out of five Internet users have searched for health information online, making health one of the most searched topics on the internet. While on the one hand, this is good news for doctors since patients are often using the information they get online to get better informed and prepared for their doctor visits, on the other hand it can lead to a glut of potential misinformation.  After all, anyone with Internet access can set up a health blog, no credentials required. That’s why it’s becoming increasingly important for doctors to get involved in the online discussion. Think you don’t have time, are you worried about privacy and regulatory issues, or you don’t know where to begin? Participating in a consumer-facing social media platform doesn’t have to be as complicated or time-consuming as you may think. These five simple suggestions will help you on the road toward social media success.

1. Mind your time.  One of the things I hear over and over from doctors is that they simply don’t have time to participate in social media.  Contrary to what you might think, engaging online doesn’t have to require a huge time commitment.  There are many forms of social media available to doctors today, and it doesn’t have to mean writing constant Facebook or Twitter posts or managing a blog that needs daily updates.  Instead, you can choose a less time-consuming format such as an online Q&A forum where the doctor-patients channel is already established.  Find a site that provides a platform that makes it easy for you to maintain an online profile and answer patient questions, as your schedule allows.

2. Transparency is king.  Let’s face it: A face-to-face doctor visit is never going to be replaced by websites or blogs. But the more information you can provide about yourself and your credentials, the more patients can trust the information they are getting online, and will use the information to be better informed and prepared when they do visit their doctor. Look for a social media platform that offers features such as a searchable online directory that provides clear and detailed profile information about medical providers in its directory, including licensing information and status (including board certification), disciplinary history, education, employer and contact information.  The last point is important, especially if you want to use social media to help grow your practice and generate new patients.

3. Size matters. Yes, when it comes to social media, finding a platform with a sizable installed user base of patients and doctors is important.  Not only does this help you reach patients more efficiently, but it also means that the platform has proven itself to be a safe and trustworthy place for patients and doctors to engage with one another.  While common sense dictates that you not engage in confidential doctor/patient conversations in a public forum, look for sites that have clear community guidelines for respectful and trusted online communications.  The internet has proven itself to be incredibly good at weeding out the bad and promoting the good. You’ll know a site can be trusted if it has a large community of people using the service.

4. Bring on the critics. People tend to trust their peers when searching online, which is why consumer reviews are becoming more and more popular for everything from restaurants and travel destinations, to yes, even doctors. Rather than shy away from sites that allow patients to write reviews, embrace them.  At Avvo, we’ve found that our users overwhelmingly want to share their positive experiences and provide constructive feedback that can be helpful to others.  By encouraging patient and peer reviews, you’re going one step further to build deeper trust with your patients.

5. Take two. Needless to say, it’s probably a good idea to keep your business and personal matters separate (after all, do you really want your patients to comment on your dog photos?).  While many of us have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts to stay in touch with friends and family, you probably don’t want your patients following you there too.  Instead, seek out a separate social media platform that is more appropriate for patient engagement, such as an online health-focused community.  This will make it easier for you to engage with patients, without having to explain that triple scoop ice-cream cone you indulged in over the weekend.

Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a free resource that rates and profiles 90% of all doctors and lawyers in the U.S.

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  • http://twitter.com/JasonBoies Jason Boies

    Good points, Mark.

    I think the consensus among professionals (not just in Healthcare) is that Facebook is probably best kept as a personal platform, separated from work life.  I recently did a post about Healthcare social media policies and many (though not all) facilities tend to discourage health pros from “Friending” their patients. 

    Mark Ryan (@RichmondDoc:disqus ) has a good post up this week over at the Mayo site, points 6 and 7 touch on the issue of personal/professional use.  Some good supplemental reading. :)  http://socialmedia.mayoclinic.org/2012/03/13/guiding-principles-for-physician-use-of-social-media/


    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community

  • Craig Koniver, MD

    Great points! I tend to think that doctors should not have two separate accounts for their personal vs. professional sides. I think that most patients want their doctors to be human and seeing the personal side helps display that facet. 

    I like how you pointed out that engaging in social media does not take a lot of time and you make some great points about why it is important for doctors to engage it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/markbrittonfb Mark Britton

      Thanks Craig. I get this question a lot re: separate social media
      accounts, and it’s a tough one because it is actually quite hard to separate
      the two.  Still, to preserve sanity, I
      recommend doctors do their best to keep the two channels private, realizing
      that some overlap will always happen – just like a doctor’s mobile phone number
      or personal email:  Some patients will
      have access, but most won’t.  Another
      approach is to treat *everything* as professional, which is largely my
      approach.  If you look at my Facebook,
      Twitter and Avvo accounts, I focus on telling Avvo’s story rather than my
      own.  I lace-in a lot of personal stuff because
      that is who I am; but I am careful about what I put out there – especially as
      it relates to my family.  I’m not saying
      this is the best approach for everyone, but it’s the best approach for me
      because I lead a CEO’s public life.


  • Anonymous

     Do you think that when the company’s coach walks in the physicians office for the employee/patient appointment that the physician feels intimidated?  When do you think any feeling of intimidation would be absent?  When the physician is also a employee of the company?

    • http://www.facebook.com/markbrittonfb Mark Britton

      Not sure I understand the question.  Coach?

      • katerinahurd

        I appologize for the latness of my response due to health issues.  Coaching is the latest tool in managing a company- business.  The coach is invoved in the process of employment by asking questions that build the profile of the future employee in order to fulfill the expectations of the company by providing the future employee with a work opportunity that allows him to contribute to the goal of the company.  I have attached an article I coauthored that will give you a better understanding of the relationship between the coach and the employee that does not substitute the doctor- patient relationship.
        Thank you for your patience.

        Katerina Hurd, Ph.D.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ntueno Naoto T Ueno

    I agree and not agree with no. 5. In small town, you may be the only doctor. In this situation, everybody knows who is the doctor including the private matter. This provided a trust that the healthcare providers are also a person. This does not mean that all private matter should be disclosed but I think that it is ok for the patient to comment your dog or ice cream as long as your true private stuff (family and personal matter) is not exposed. It is a fine line but social media brings more huma side of the doctors to the patients.

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