Find your social media voice. Patients are listening.

american society of anesthesiologistsA guest column by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, exclusive to KevinMD.com.

“Social media engagement” is a buzzword in today’s business world. There is no clear definition of this term, but most agree that it involves some measure that those looking at your online content are actually interested in what you have to say. In other words, is anybody listening?

One of the definitions of “engage” is to “hold the attention of, give attention to, or take part in something.” Chances are many of you reading this have a social media account (or two, or three) and your group and hospital also have one. However, are you really “engaged” in social media? Are you taking part in the conversation and holding the attention of your audience?

Ironically, physicians are often reluctant to fully engage in social media because it takes time, attention and effort.  After all, aren’t there enough things vying for our time? What is the return on investment?  I’ve often heard, “I didn’t go into medicine to be on social media. It has nothing to do with my job as a doctor!”

What is clear is that patients are not waiting for physicians. They are already engaged in social media. Considering how the Internet and social media dominate our everyday lives, it’s no surprise that people are also increasingly turning to online health care resources. Like it or not, patients may already have an impression of you, your practice and hospital when they walk in the door. They have already sought reviews and recommendations and read information (and misinformation) about their symptoms or medical condition.  This phenomenon will not be going away.

Recent surveys show that 72 percent of people have searched online in the past year at least once for health information. Almost 50 percent of patients say they regularly search online for information before seeking health care. More than 40 percent of people admit that the information they find on social media affects the way they deal with their health and 41 percent of people said it affects their choice of physician or hospital. These numbers are only poised to increase as the younger generation grows older. The 18- to 24-year-old demographic has been found to be twice as likely as all other age groups to discuss health and health care related issues on social media.

So patients are listening, but part of engagement is that those listening trust and respond to what is being communicated. Here is a statistic that is extremely important — 60 percent of those who use social media say they are most likely to trust content created by physicians over any other group. This presents a powerful opportunity for physicians to influence, educate and provide accurate and trustworthy content. It also offers the chance for physicians, practices and hospitals to make a good first impression by paying attention to what they put online. Additionally, much can be learned from social media because patients are often willing to post things (especially complaints, but also concerns, doubts and fears) that they would be hesitant to say in person. If you’ve made a mistake or even a bad impression, don’t you want to know about it so that you can do something to fix and learn from it?

Being engaged does not mean that you have to engage your patients individually. In fact, this may not be the best idea in the age of HIPAA and other online privacy concerns. Instead, you can be a source of reliable information for patients collectively. In addition, engagement in social media is not the same as running an online ad. You are not just trying to let people know you exist, but rather you are trying to provide meaningful and useful content that results in people being interested in what you have to say. This provides a platform for you to show that you are passionate about the work that you do. In return, patients are allowing you into their collective consciousness and extending their trust without requiring you to spend a single dollar. Of course, we come back to the fact that you are spending time and effort, but can’t you see the potential for a true return on investment?

Find your social media voice because patients are listening! Patients are looking for accurate information and for someone to trust. As a physician engaged in social media, you are able to provide this information for a wider audience than just the patients you see in your practice each day. You have the opportunity to influence the behavior and attitudes of people who have chosen to trust you. You are able to provide important patient education amidst a sea of misinformation. You can advocate for patients and for the future of health care. You have a chance to speak to issues that you truly care about and potentially improve the health of many people.

Doesn’t that sound like the job of a physician? Isn’t that what you went into medicine to do?

Paul H. Ting is an anesthesiologist.

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