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Are You Using Social Media to Build Your Medical Practice?

Apps MedicineBy Marsha Friedman

How many times have you dragged yourself to a cocktail party after a 15-hour day examining patients? You’re ready to trade your lab coat for a fuzzy flannel robe, but instead, you’re suiting up for an evening of small talk and cheese balls.

As a physician and a businessman, you know the value of networking. To grow your practice, forge relationships with other doctors and build your reputation, you’ve got to do more than treat illnesses and set broken bones.

Developing efficient ways to network and communicate with peers and patients will become even more important in the months and years ahead thanks to the Affordable Health-care Act. The law’s emphasis on preventive care and the anticipated crush of newly insured patients will require a lot of proactive, efficient outreach if you want to be as effective as possible.

Of course, I know you don’t rely solely on professional gatherings and social get-togethers to connect with others. You’re also online, with a personal Facebook page and a nice website for your practice. You just don’t have the time or manpower to do more.

It’s time to rethink that. I promise you, an hour of virtual networking – at home in your bathrobe and slippers! – is more valuable than 12 spent watching cocktail wieners drown in barbecue sauce.

While 87 percent of physicians use social media in their personal lives – everything from Facebook, to Twitter, to blogs and YouTube – only 26 percent use two or more sites for connecting professionally, according to a 2011 QuantiaMD survey of more than 4,000 doctors. The most popular sites for docs are physician communities, which 28 percent of you use to discuss medical issues, learn about new therapies, and share information through links to articles.

That means a lot of you are missing out on a wealth of opportunities. Consider: Unlike the rest of us, you’re practically guaranteed an audience because people tend to trust what physicians post (61% percent of patients surveyed by PwC Health Research Institute). That audience can grow exponentially online, and that translates to tremendous credibility in the public eye. For better or for worse, in today’s world we’re judged by the size of our online following.

What can that mean for your practice? If you’re a specialist, patients all over the country and beyond can get to know you and come to trust in your expertise. Will they travel to confer with the physician they know? Oh, yes!

Even if you’re only interested in building your practice locally, having an online reputation as a knowledgeable, helpful physician will lead to more patients and more referrals. People often choose doctors through word-of-mouth recommendations, and thousands of Twitter followers is some impressive word-of-mouth!

As for helping you deal with the changes expected as a result of the Affordable Health-care Act? More patients and a focus on preventive health care will require you to turn your one-on-one office visit reminders, precautions and advice into mass messages. Some physicians already are experimenting with targeting email blasts to groups of patients with the same concerns or chronic illnesses, e.g. “Have you scheduled your mammogram?” or “Have you heard about this new technique for averting an asthma attack?”

Social media allows you to alert large numbers of patients – and others who are interested – to new therapies, preventive lifestyle changes, checkup reminders and other valuable health information.

But before I move on to suggestions for which sites will be most helpful to you and tips for using them, a word of caution. The American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards have both issued guidelines to help you avoid censure, awkward situations and conflicts of interest caused by posting the wrong content online.

The AMA policy warns physicians not to post any identifiable patient information to avoid federal privacy violations. The FSMB policy further refines that: No photos of patients, no mentioning room numbers, no referring to patients by code names.

Both also remind clinicians to separate personal and professional sites. Don’t use your personal Facebook page, where you interact with friends and family, to connect with patients and former patients. When creating log-ins for personal sites, use your personal email address. If you use your professional email, people may assume you’re representing yourself online in that capacity.

Doctors also have inadvertently overstepped ethical boundaries of their patient-physician relationships by becoming friends and followers of their patients’ sites, and allowing them access to their personal sites. The FSMB policy includes descriptions of scenarios that have resulted from a patient seeing photos of her doctor partying it up late at night – and wondering if he was sober during their early-morning appointments – to a psychiatrist unsure what to do about a former patient’s worrisome posts.

A graceful way to handle requests from patients and former patients who ask to connect with you through your personal accounts is to refer them to your professional sites.

Most important, remember that everything you post online is now published for the world to see: The disparaging comment about a colleague; the innocent, off-color joke; the irritation over a patient’s behavior.

All that said, developing an online presence really is not so scary. At my company, EMSI, we simply remind the physicians and other health-care professionals who are clients not to do or say anything online that they wouldn’t at that networking cocktail party.

Now, on to the fun stuff. There are three ways you can handle your social media: Do it yourself; have someone in your office take care of it with your oversight; or have a PR company take care of it. With the latter, there are many different models. Our company employs social media experts who “become” the client, learning their voice, their message, their likes and dislikes. While they take care of posting content, responding to comments and questions, and building the audience, they do so while in constant communication and coordination with our client.

I’d also advise you to look for firms that have experience working with health-care professionals. We felt comfortable taking on doctors as clients when we launched our social media division five years ago, because we’d been working with doctors since we went into business 22 years ago.

If you plan the DIY approach, you’ll want to choose at least two networking sites – more is better! – for your professional accounts. We like the four most popular – Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn – although you have many, many other options. There are also physician communities, such as Doximity ( with 567,000 members, which are accessible only by doctors. These offer you a measure of freedom to tackle concerns and problems, and they’re an excellent educational resource.

Here’s a brief description of the four big networking sites:

Facebook – Facebook is the largest social network in the world. Your content is provided through fairly brief “status updates,” such as: “It’s flu season, have you been vaccinated? It’s a simple way to prevent a week of misery and time away from work. Have concerns? Here’s a link to a great article laying out the truths and myths about flu vaccinations.” You can also share photos, videos and online resources.

Twitter – With Twitter, you communicate in posts of no more than 140 characters – a sentence or two. You can share links, get involved in conversations, and access different topic categories, by using hashtags (i.e. #asthma) to see, for instance, the concerns of people living with asthma. Users “follow” each other and thus gain access to their messages. You can also respond directly to individual users, although these will be displayed publicly.

Google+ – Google+ is a combination of Facebook and Twitter, a social network that allows you to separate the people you share content with by placing them in circles, such as friends, colleagues, acquaintances. You can use it for one-on-one conversations

LinkedIn – Used primarily for building a professional network, LinkedIn allows you to share your CV, have colleagues post recommendations, see the professionals your contacts are associated with and hold discussions. It’s a great way to get introduced to someone you’d like to connect with but don’t know. LinkedIn has more than 70 million registered users.

Assuming you’re going to handle your social media yourself, here are some tips from our experts at EMSI.

  • Be sure to fill out your profile with accurate, complete information about you, your credentials and your practice. Don’t use the shadowy profile picture most platforms provide as a default. Instead upload a professional photo of you (we prefer a face because people like to follow people) or your business logo.
  • People will follow you only if your content is informative or entertaining so don’t use your site simply to advertise your practice or services. If you want to build an audience, give people content they can use.
  • Respond to comments and questions in a timely fashion. It can be as simple as a “thank you.” If you don’t respond, your followers will quickly realize no one’s really “there” and they’ll quit coming back. (If they ask for a diagnosis, talk in general terms about their symptoms, i.e. Localized rashes are often caused by non-threatening allergic reactions. Try not to scratch; Benadryl ointment may help. If it spreads, you should see your doctor.)
  • Look for helpful, timely news stories to link to, such as new medical studies. When posting a link to an article, don’t simply post the link. Add a personal comment, such as, “This is an interesting new weight-loss study that should help anyone who hates dieting.” People can find those articles themselves – what they value is your take on them.
  • Know that when you first launch your social media account, your audience will grow slowly. But as your audience grows, your site is exposed to more and more people – each person who friends, likes, or connects with you is also sharing your content with their friends. Be patient. If you want to add followers more quickly, find relevant interest groups and add your comments to their conversations.
  • On Twitter, follow nearly as many people as the number following you. It’s all about sharing. If people see you don’t subscribe to other accounts, they won’t subscribe to yours. Everyone wants followers!
  • Photographs always draw attention – people love visuals! While physicians need to be careful about personal information, your followers willl enjoy the occasional family vacation photo or cute pet picture. Plus, it shows your human side. And that’s what you need to do to attract followers.

So what’s the takeaway? Social media is the present and the future of marketing.  If you don’t already have a presence, now is the time to start building one. It’s how relationships, credibility and practices are taken to new heights.

Patients may eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away.  But a Tweet a day will keep your practice healthy.


Marsha Friedman is the CEO of EMSI Public Relations (, a national firm that provides PR strategy and publicity services to corporations, entertainers, authors and professional firms. 





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