Doctors may be cagey about reaching out to patients on Facebook or Twitter — but there are plenty of pay-offs for getting social media-savvy.
Social networking has found its niche when it comes to professional collaboration, but should you draw the line at interacting with patients?
If you listen to most of the commentary on these interactive platforms, you’d think so. The potential pitfalls most often cited include the blurring of professional boundaries and patient privacy issues.
It makes sense to keep your private life and professional life separate online. That may mean having two Facebook or Twitter identities: one private and one professional.
A professional social media identity can help doctors and practices to establish trust and transparency, and provide them with opportunities to improve their service and gain loyalty.
Some practices have started using Facebook to help with appointment scheduling, for instance, while others use it as a forum for patient feedback.
But there’s another reason why it pays to dabble: public expectations about how they connect in the health care space are changing.
For starters, they are chatting with each other about their health-related experiences — and their doctors — on online community sites, according to Ms Jenni Beattie, a Sydney-based digital communications consultant who specialises in the health care industry.
She says patients will also increasingly come to expect the same two-way communication that social media enables in other parts of their lives.
If it sounds time consuming, it need not be. Social media works best when used in a targeted and deliberate manner, according to Ms Beattie.
“It’s important for practices interested in integrating social media into the marketing mix to have a strategy and ensure that measurement is included”, she says.
Here’s an overview of some of the options:
In the business world, Facebook is emerging as a new customer service platform. For practices, this can translate to a cheap and effective delivery mechanism for health information.
Mr Hugh Stephens, a social media consultant with Dialogue Consulting and a medical student, says Facebook is a useful channel for practices because it is popular across many people and age groups.
“From a business perspective, you need to go where your audience is.”
For most practices, social media strategies won’t be geared at gathering more patients, Mr Stephens says. The emphasis will be on providing a better service to the community, say by posting targeted health-related messages.
“This is particularly relevant in rural and remote communities”, he says.
The Panaceum Group medical practice in Geraldton uses Facebook in this way, says one of its GPs, Dr Edwin Kruys.
“Our practice has a Facebook page with about 1500 friends and we use it for health education purposes and to exchange information like opening hours and phone numbers”, he says.
“This is very much appreciated by our patients. As it is a public forum it is obviously not suitable for consultations and for the exchange of personal information.”
Dr Kruys says patients can post on its Facebook page, and this interaction has already paid off for the practice.
“We receive mostly positive feedback and occasionally negative feedback, and that’s fair enough”, he says. “One unhappy patient commented on their wall about waiting times, and we were able to explain why our doctors sometimes run late — which received a positive response.”
Social media opens up a dialogue, Dr Kruys says, so complaints can be addressed and often remedied immediately, and others can see action being taken.
Online communities encourage people with specific interests and issues to get together to find support, share advice and recommendations.
Ms Beattie says physicians who take the time to get to know these communities and other information resources will be in a better position to recommend them to patients.
Examples of patient communities include mental health sites, ReachOut Forums (http://forums.reachout.com) and BlueBoard (http://blueboard.anu.edu.au), and forums for people with chronic disease, including the diabetes site. RealityCheck (www.realitycheck.org.au/RCforum).
“It’s important that the physician not only is abreast of the most reputable sites on medical conditions but discusses web searching with patients to recommend the more reputable sites”, Ms Beattie says.
According to Mr Stephens, these sorts of sites — especially those with a big influence such as the so-called “mummy blogs” such as www.mamamia.com.au — also present an opportunity for doctors to engage and add their voice and expertise to the conversation.
“Ultimately the way to get your message out there is to find those who are interested in what you’re saying, so if you specialise in women’s health, reach out to those who might be blogging about their experiences”, he says.
A growing number of doctors are blogging and tweeting messages pitched at fellow professionals, while some are targeting a broader patient audience.
Perth GP Dr Joe Kosterich kicked off his www.drjoe.net.au website primarily as a vehicle through which to promote his healthy lifestyle books, but now he finds that blogging provides an even wider audience.
“What I found after many years in medicine is that I was saying the same things about diet, exercise and sleep over and over, to one person at a time. Via my blog I can talk to thousands simultaneously.”
Dr Kosterich’s experience shows the power of social media. He has 38 000 followers on Twitter and 5000 friends on Facebook, where he offers general healthy living tips, rather than health advice.
He says he aims to engage people who are interested in improving their health and to provide them with practical information to help them do that.
Dr Kosterich says he’s figuring out what works. “You can put something up and it sinks like stone, while other things go off and this gives you guidance”, he says. “Doctors who want to go down a public speaking route or write a book can put themselves out there and see what response they get at no cost — except for the time invested — so there’s not a lot to lose.”
Filling the breach
Social media platforms can be a great way to schedule patient appointments, but few practices are geared up for this. That’s where online intermediaries such as HealthEngine hope to carve out a niche.
HealthEngine founder Dr Marcus Tan says the web-based doctor directory recently added a new booking engine and now it helps more than 115 general practices nationally to fill free appointment slots.
“Primarily these practices are looking to grow, and they’re using us as an alternative marketing channel”, Dr Tan says.
The benefit for patients is that it helps them track down a GP at short notice and they can also book the appointment at the same time via the web or an iPhone app, Dr Tan says.
Practices pay a monthly subscription fee to use the service, but the fee is waived if a practice doesn’t receive at least five bookings in a month.
Dr Tan says HealthEngine has advertised more than 80 000 appointments Australia-wide since it was launched in February. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are helping to build awareness and gain feedback, which helps HealthEngine build its patient following.
“We are already noticing the power of social media”, Dr Tan says. “Positive comments are being left on the HealthEngine Facebook page by our users and, as a result, their Facebook friends are starting to find and book appointments.”
It also means that practices that are reluctant to connect with patients online can still reap the benefits of social media.
The benefits in a nutshell
Social media consultant Ms Jenni Beattie outlines four ways that practices can benefit from a social media presence:
Offer information beyond the appointment
A medical practice can provide added value to patients by posting relevant content to its website and disseminating this via social media channels. Seasonal posts such as flu information can be added throughout the year.
Raise physician profiles
Increasingly people are going online to find out more about their doctor’s background. It is therefore important that on the medical centre website the doctors’ biographies are listed, ideally with a link to their profile on www.linkedin.com.
Influence online search
Medical practices involved in social media have an advantage in terms of web search engines. The practice will rank better on Google, which is important for patients who are looking for a local medical practice.
For medical practices that face competition, social media can form part of the marketing toolkit. Platforms such as Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Twitter can be used both to disseminate information and updates to patients and to help doctors connect with
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