Putting the Right Face on Your Practice With Social Media

December 13, 2010
Ed Rabinowitz

Many in the medical community have come to realize that social media is about communication. That's a key factor in building online communities between physicians and their patients. Before you engage in social media, however, you need to understand how to "talk the talk" and determine what kind of communications your patients want from you.

There are just over one million active Facebook users in the U.S., The Neilson Co. reports. Based on recent census figures, that’s virtually one-third of the country’s population. Want to bet that there are more than a few physicians among those one million active accounts?

“We’ve seen more and more physicians turning to social media like Facebook to really put their shingle out there,” explains Jeff Hinz, senior vice president, emerging media for New York’s ID Media Inc. “Physicians recognize it as a platform where they can build a group of like-minded community members with whom they can interact.”

With more than one million active Facebook users, that’s a lot of potential interaction.

Putting a Face on Your Practice

Hinz believes that the medical community has come to realize that social media is about communication. That’s a key factor in building online communities between physicians and their patients. He says that any time a doctor has the opportunity to reach out to his or her patients — or to his or her community -- that’s a major plus.

“Through Facebook, physicians can reach out to the community, provide information, and really personalize what their practice is about, as opposed to a listing in a phone book or on an insurance website,” says Hinz, adding that of all the social media vehicles, Facebook “has the highest level of two-way interaction.”

Along with that interaction, says Hinz, is the use of proper procedures and protocols. He cautions that the very relaxed nature of communicating via social media makes it all too easy to revert to a very conversational, almost flip nature of managing those communications. As such, it’s important for physicians to remain professional when interacting in the relaxed friendship mode that social media promotes.

What about social-networking sites such as Groupon, which invites consumers into groups to take advantage of discounts on certain purchases? Hinz says that, where the medical profession is concerned, activity on these sites has been skewed more toward the cosmetic or homeopathic side of the business, such as discounts on massage therapy or hair removal. “What sites like Groupon are communicating is savings and special offers to entice someone to join that community,” says Hinz. “Whether it would be believable that you would get the same level of care from a doctor giving you a 50 percent off coupon, that hasn’t been addressed yet, and I’m not sure it ever will.”

Getting the Lay of the Land

Hinz suggests that physicians who want to integrate social media into their practice begin the same way they would with any community outreach, communication or advertising endeavor. The first step is to determine your objectives, and then use social media as a way to meet those objectives. If you’ve never ventured onto these types of sites, Hinz suggests “lurking” first, defined in the Internet culture as reading discussions on websites to get a sense not only of the appropriate ways of communication, but also what people are talking about.

“There are a number of consumers who have built Facebook communities around specific indications, whether it be cancer or heart disease,” Hinz explains. “These Facebook communities are places where people can share information, or get a shoulder to lean on. That would be a good place for a physician to interact initially, to get a sense of why people are using social media as it relates to health issues.”

There are, Hinz explains, numerous organizations that provide counseling on how to use social media to meet your objectives, both professionally and personally. However, a very good place for physicians to start is simply by talking to patients in their office. Ask questions: “If I had a Facebook page, what type of information would you be interested in seeing there?” Or, “How would you like me to share information and stay in contact with you?” In addition, be aware that online communities, especially those centered around health issues, maintain a certain level of privacy. Physicians will want to gauge level of involvement or transparency that patients desire.

Above all, says Hinz, don’t become mired in the mentality of, “If you built it, they will come.” In other words, don’t create a Facebook page and then sit back and say, what’s next? “If you have a Facebook page and no one ever goes to it, think about why would someone want to come to your page,” Hinz says. “Why would someone want to interact with you? Is there daily information you’re sharing that people would find interesting? It’s important to understand your overall objectives.”