Physician engagement in social media is time well spent


Physicians have always been teachers, educating patients and families in the exam room, sharing handouts, hanging posters, and sometimes writing magazine articles and self-help books. Today, we have another communication tool, one that is far-reaching with significant impact: social media.

Americans use social media to consume massive amounts of digital content. The problem is much of it is misinformation, which is why it’s important for physicians to jump in and lend an evidence-based voice to the conversation. But where does one begin? How much time will it take? And can we really make a difference?

Begin with a clear understanding of your topic and goals. Choose something of interest and conduct research before you post. What does the latest evidence show? How could this evidence impact patients and families? What change would you like to see, and how can this change be accomplished? Ideas may stem from other social media posts, news headlines or a question that pops up in your practice. As you develop your goals, try to keep them SMART: specific, meaningful, agreed upon, realistic and timely. As a pediatrician, my recent topics have included when to potty train, how to stop a nosebleed and guidelines for early peanut introduction.

Identify your target audience. Who should hear your message? There are many possibilities: patients, parents, caregivers, teachers, employers, colleagues, medical learners and policy makers. Many groups may benefit from your message, but consider one at a time because what you say, how you say it and where you share it will be different for each one.

Assess the needs of your audience. Once you settle on a target audience, consider their needs. Why are they online? What do they seek?  How can you be useful in their quest? Your audience may have several needs, but try to choose one or two you can leverage and meet. For example, is your audience seeking information for themselves or on behalf of someone else? Do they wish to enhance health and well-being or improve clinical practice? Do they need continuing medical education (CME) credit or simple entertainment?

Align your goals with audience needs. Now it’s time to weave goals and needs into a single package. Keep your message simple and focused. Think about the form your message will take and how the presentation could meet audience need. Twitter is a great place to start because it forces you to state your message in 140 characters or less. Expansion of your message can come in the form of blog posts, infographics, podcast episodes, videos or educational modules.

Grow the connection with your audience. Where does your target audience hang out on the Internet? Start with a channel you know and explore. What hashtags do they follow? What groups do they join? Consider Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Linked-In, ResearchGate, Doximity, YouTube and web-based forum boards. There are many ways to connect with a target audience, and looking for them can be half the fun! As you engage, share your evidence-based message with courtesy and respect. Avoid getting sucked into debate and ignore those who berate you. Many eyes will be watching, and it’s important physicians represent our profession well.

Curate and share content. As you consider your message and ways to share it, recognize others have traveled this path before you. They may have created what you have in mind, and it’s fine to share their content by linking to it in your social media channels. Verify the source is trustworthy and the information evidence-based and up-to-date. Give appropriate credit and share the resource with your audience.

Create original material. Can’t find something to share? Available resources incomplete or out-of-date? Call upon your creative talents and produce a piece of original content. You don’t even need your own blog or podcast. Author a guest post or interview with a host who reaches your target audience. Consider partnering with a local artist to create an infographic or a tech guru and accredited CME provider to bring an educational module to life. The possibilities are endless!

Evaluate progress and adjust course. After sharing your message, take a step back and evaluate your work. Is there feedback to review? Have you thought of new channels to explore? Maybe a different target audience or a fresh approach comes to mind.

Social media engagement can be simple and fun. You don’t need hours of time. You don’t even need a large audience. Think about the exam room, where we make a difference one patient at a time. Lending an evidence-based voice to the digital conversation is a natural extension of that everyday work … and it is always time well spent.

Michael Patrick is a pediatrician and hosts PediaCast for Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH.

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