Physicians Can Use Social Media Tools to Bond With Patients

October 24, 2008

If you're not currently a social media user, it's likely you will be within the next 4 years.

If you’re not currently a social media user, it’s likely you will be within the next 4 years. A recent report by Strategy Analytics estimates that there are currently 489 million users of social media—Internet-based communication tools such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Ning. That number is expected to exceed one billion by 2012, physicians included.

“I’ve found that physicians learn very quickly,” says Jennifer Texada, program manager of Digital and New Media at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where physicians have been actively forming social media networks for about a year. “You have to find a personal reason [for using social media]. When [physicians] find that, they’re off and running.”

Well, maybe walking first would be a good idea.

Listening skills

Social media experts agree that, especially where physicians are concerned, the first big hurdle in successfully utilizing social media tools is learning to listen, then interact with people as a human. Ed Schipul, founder of Schipul — The Web Marketing Company (www.schipul.com), says that’s a different domain for doctors, who are used to interacting with patients as a person of authority.

“Doctors approach social media as if they know everything, and it’s just not like that,” says Schipul. “Doctors are brilliant, but just because you’re brilliant doesn’t mean I’m going to have you repair an engine on the airplane I’ll be flying, because you’re not trained in that area. First, you have to walk in the room and listen.”

The room, in this case, is virtual, and Schipul says that social media are phenomenal tools to enable listening. He suggests that physicians start by setting up Google alerts that will alert them when people are posting blogs containing either their name or the name of their practice. It’s an easy way, he says, for a physician’s “personal brand” to have a clipping service, and it allows physicians to respond much faster than waiting 2 years for peer-reviewed articles to be published in traditional magazines.

Why get involved?

Schipul explains that one of the key reasons for physicians to be involved in social media is that, even if they’re not very good at it at first, at least they’re “in the room” when the conversation starts. “You can never start a blog in response to a crisis,” he says. “That’s why docs need a presence in social media, even a small one. Because if something goes wrong, they have a platform to stand on. They have a personal reputation in the blogosphere.”

At M.D. Anderson, listening is helping patient advocacy staff assist patients with problems they have, such as being lost in the hospital or understanding a particular diagnosis. “We listen to what the conversations are about in social media, and we pass that on to patient advocacy,” says Texada, adding that physicians are active, too. One physician is talking on Twitter about some of the research he’s doing and related activities at the hospital, while a group of physicians are using Facebook to help locate physicians interested in participating in medical missions trips.

“There are some challenges, obviously, with HIPAA compliance and not wanting to share health-specific information online,” says Texada. “But I think we’ve gotten to the point where physicians are starting to embrace the fact that their patients are researching online, and that the Web is a reputable place to post study results. I don’t think use of these tools is going to slow down any time soon.”

Bad news, good news

Schipul admits that, when it comes to getting started, learning all the social norms and “netiquette” that apply to using social media can be overwhelming for physicians at first. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that it’s easy to identify and recruit individuals with a passion for and understanding of social media.

“If I was a doctor and was doing social media outreach, one of the first things I would do is send an e-mail to all of my employees and ask if any of them are already blogging and active in social media,” suggests Schipul. “They’re already on my payroll. And if they’re doing [social media] and they’re excited about it, then all I have to do is change their job responsibility.”

YourCity.MD, a new social network for physicians, is helping physicians break the ice when it comes to building relationships with patients. With 450 city- and state-specific online health cites, such as www.Cincinnati.MD, the sites enable patients to rate doctors and provide feedback on the doctors’ own websites within their city site. Physicians can review the feedback, interact with patients, and grow and improve their practice through these free productivity tools.

“It’s coming to the point where physicians realize they have to participate in this,” says Michael Barber, MD, chief medical officer for YourCity.MD and a family physician. “I think they’re starting to see some of the benefits, and they want to join the party.”

Ed Rabinowitz is a veteran healthcare writer and reporter. He welcomes comments at edwardr@frontiernet.net.