Google and social media are increasingly being used by patients to recommend doctors, ask for medical advice, and provide feedback on their experiences. Jason Borody, Director of medical marketing agency Vividus, explains how your practice can turn this challenge to your advantage.
Trust me, I'm a doctor.
For better or worse, the Internet has changed this type of top-down information distribution. Patients can get a second, third, and fourth opinion in minutes from Doctor Google or other online information sources.
If you're worried about the resulting spread of misinformation and poor medical advice, you're not alone. There also seems to be an inverse correlation between how easy it is to find health information and its accuracy. However, Doctor Google doesn't have to be your enemy.
Instead of focusing on the negative aspects associated with social media and online healthcare information, consider how these can build your reputation over time and become a channel to provide patients with accurate, useful information that will position you as a thought leader and expert.
Which channels are patients and colleagues using?
Google My Business is the first thing patients and colleagues Googling your practice will see. It should include your location, opening hours, billing details, and contact details. There's no excuse not to be managing this, as it's a free service.
Likewise, Facebook is free to set up and a common first point of call for patients. People are becoming increasingly vocal on Facebook, with groups such as mothers frequently trading advice and recommendations. This creates a great opportunity for healthcare professionals to spread correct advice, and combat misinformation.
Tapping into existing patient networks and groups takes credibility, so setting up and managing your Google and social media profiles is an essential first step. After that, it's a matter of spending some time regularly posting updates and responding to questions and feedback.
Your online presence should be more than just Facebook and Twitter
Blogs and health portals are also a form of social media, and a chance for professionals to help patients with ongoing information on illnesses from a reliable source, rather than a random person on a forum.
A regular blog is a way to position your point of view as a health professional, inform patients about the new techniques and technologies you are using, and improve the search engine optimisation of your website.
At the highest level, it can lead to offers for speaking engagements, research opportunities, book deals, and requests for interviews or comments.
Doctor Google as an opportunity
Social media is a tool to reach and inform patients. This means you can actively provide health information on a range of conditions, reduce illness stigma, and combat misleading health information. Patients are already using social media to treat themselves and each other, and that can have negative effects. A perfect example of this is the increase in childhood outbreaks of immunisable diseases. This is something doctors can be actively working against. A simple way to do this is to tweet back or comment against scaremongering news stories or misinformation. Just remember, social media content must be informative, educational, and entertaining in order to be effective.
Research has shown that there are seven potential benefits to patients in relation to healthcare on social media:
- Provide health information on a range of conditions
- Provide answers to medical questions
- Facilitate dialogue patient-to-patient and patient-to-health professional
- Collect data on patient experiences and opinions
- Health intervention, health promotion and health education
- Reduce illness stigma
- Provide online consultations
A key opportunity here is reducing stigma. The Internet and social media have been an excellent forum for patients with mental illness and HIV/AIDS to share experiences and provide each other with support. By breaking down taboos around issues and creating a national dialogue, more patients will feel comfortable seeking help. The anonymity the Internet provides for patients can be a huge help in creating a safe support network online.
What is considered best-practice for doctors on social media?
A lot of practitioners use social media for health communication the same way as traditional media - as a one-way communication tool. Social is all about the conversation.
Some of the most effective medical practitioners on social media engage with Twitter chats, Q&As, answering questions on Reddit… they talk to people. The megaphone approach is good for personal brand awareness, but to build credibility, improve Dr Google and get patients to listen to you, conversations are key.
It takes time, persistence, and passion to build a following. What area of medicine really means the most to you, and what's your point of view? Go from there, and make sure you are optimising your blog, website, and other channels as you go. Building your credibility is going to be vital to setting yourself up as an authority against dubious sources.
Healthcare literacy and social media guidelines
One key drawback on healthcare information online is that it requires a degree of scientific literacy to be able to properly understand, and online readers are in the habit of skim reading.
Though not formulated specifically for social media, a key component of the AHPRA guidelines discusses making sure communications cannot be misleading to an uninformed audience. So what is the best approach to take? Strike a balance between approachable and professional.
There are no formal guidelines, but key things to consider are; don't use patient names, don't use any identifiable information, don't discuss confidential information, and don't diagnose people.
But you can correct factual errors in already published digital content. In short, keep it professional.
You should never give medical advice, or interact with a patient within a doctor-patient relationship in cyberspace. Social media evangelist and Medical Doctor Dr Kevin Campbell advises:
"When people tweet me with issues, I advise them to contact their local emergency room or contact their physician. You need to make it clear that you are not providing treatment advice and you are not engaging in a doctor-patient relationship".
Another simple solution would be to have another doctor peer review your blog or post if you're not sure.
What does success look like?
More website visits, over 100,000 followers (really), conference speaking offers, book deals, television interviews, research opportunities, more patients, and a more robust business.
On the patient side, patients arrive better informed, come for fewer unnecessary visits, more vulnerable patients coming in, less trepidation seeking help on taboo conditions, and patients arriving more receptive to your advice.
In addition to the above, developing a social media presence is a great way to promote yourself within your local referral network.
I don't have time to commit to social media
Social media doesn't have to be time consuming. You can spend as little as 30 minutes a week or as much as several hours a day. Whatever your schedule permits. If you have an experienced and trusted administrative team, then you can let them take the lead on some of the social media and online engagement.
Even with limited time, you can still use social media in three ways; to educate patients, collaborate and stay connected with colleagues, and as a promotional tool. This can be at a national or local level.
So if you are pressed for time, keep it local. Interact with the local community and respond to feedback patients post on you and your practice's Facebook, Twitter, and Google My Business. The feedback you respond to can be something as simple as what magazines are in the waiting room. Another simple thing to watch out for is complaints about waiting times. Responding to these can help mitigate future problems, and also help your admin team develop a way to manage people's expectations when they come in.
No, I really don't have time for social media
If that's really the case it's important to look at outsourcing opportunities. Social media moves fast, and you have to move with it, and if you can't invest the time then it's best to look at outside help that can.
Marketing solutions for medical practices
If you'd like to discuss a custom digital marketing plan for your medical practice, that will attract new patients, improve patient communications and experience, and help you retain existing patients, please contact us for an introduction to Jason Borody.