Medical Practices Benefit from Social Media Guidelines

Social media has the potential to help a practice's bottom line, but it can also create an opportunity for misuse. The good news: The Federation of State Medical Boards has created guidelines for physicians to follow. The bad news: Many physicians don't know the guidelines exist.

Consumers today pay a great deal of attention to what friends and family say on social media. And as noted in last week’s column, monitoring social media can have a positive impact on a medical practice’s bottom line.

But are physicians adhering to social media guidelines? The answer is more startling than a simple “no.”

“Often, they don’t know [the guidelines] exist,” says Kimberly Danebrock, RN, JD, senior risk management and patient safety specialist for the Cooperative of American Physicians, Inc. “We have all incorporated [social media technology] so much into our lives but we were never taught in healthcare how to manage the technology.”

Education Imperative

Danebrock points out that, from a social media and technology perspective, there are issues unique to healthcare such as medical board discipline and privacy laws. And there are very specific guidelines that physicians should adhere to. What it comes down to is the need to focus on education.

“Social media is a hot topic, but there’s been no guidance,” Danebrock says.

As a means to resolving that issue, the Federation of State Medical Boards, through its Special Committee on Ethics and Professionalism, recently released Model Guidelines (LINK) for physicians related to electronic and digital media use.

“We provide our members with guidance based on these guidelines,” Danebrock explains. “We’ve put out a lot of articles on the topic, and have created a social media presentation that we give to groups.”

Benefits and Risks

Danebrock explains that while there are a lot of benefits to social media, physicians also need to understand the associated risks. Those risks include state privacy laws and patient confidentiality; ethical issues; risk of a civil lawsuit; and losing the trust of your patients.

But it can also be a wonderful tool for educating patients.

“And educated patients, we know, have better compliance, which leads to better outcomes,” Danebrock says.

CAP also teaches physicians how to use social media to market their medical practice, and how to handle online reviews—including when to and when not to address them—as well as how to handle patient feedback. And the education aspect is not limited to physicians.

“Every office needs to have a social media policy,” Danebrock says. “Educate yourself by reading the federation guidelines; look at social media policies that have been posted online from great healthcare organizations; and then educate your staff accordingly.”

Don’t Cross the Line

Danebrock points out that physicians, just like attorneys and accountants, are held to professional standards—even if they’re out having a drink on New Year’s Eve. As such, it’s important to keep a Facebook page for the practice separate from the physician’s personal page. Then, it’s absolutely appropriate for a patient to friend request the practice.

“Maybe you can provide updates on when flu vaccines are available,” Danebrock says. “That’s a professional site. And if a patient makes a request on the physician’s personal site, talk to the patient, because you don’t want to ruin the physician-patient relationship.”

She suggests telling the patient that you received their friend request, but that your state medical board, as well as the Federation of State Medical Boards, highly recommends physicians do not become Facebook friends with their patients.

“That way the patient doesn’t take it personal,” she says. “So we really emphasize keeping the two sites separate.”

Financial Benefits

Danebrock says that by setting up proper guidelines and using social media effectively to connect with patients, medical practices can reap both direct and indirect financial benefits.

“First and foremost you can save money on traditional advertising by promoting your practice using social media,” she explains. “It’s free.”

And by using social media appropriately and not breaching a patient’s trust, the positive things they have to say about your practice via their social media networks can definitely have a positive impact on the bottom line.

It’s also a really good forum for educating patients about your practice.

“When I speak to physicians I tell them that one of the best things they can do is a short YouTube video that shows the practice—the lobby, the staff, whatever,” Danebrock says. “Put it on your web site. When patients Google you, they’ll see it. And when they come in, they feel like they already know you. There’s already that connection.”

But the best way to start maximizing the benefits of social media, Danebrock says, is by reading the guidelines on the federation’s website.

“They’re really easy to read,” she says. “Then do a search and look at some examples of social media policies, and create one for their office and their staff.”