HealthFebruary 03, 2020

Unlocking the benefits of social media in healthcare

By: Melissa Welby, MD

Like it or not, social media has come to play a role in the practice of medicine. Maybe you're skeptical because you had a patient's health suffer after they made a decision based on an unscientific post. Or maybe you're curious about social media but too intimidated to enter what feels like foreign territory.

Either way, it's worth some deeper consideration. When you embrace social media in healthcare in the right way, you can leverage this powerful tool to develop your career and improve health outcomes. It adds a new dimension to information delivery, bringing conversations out of the examination room and enabling you to have a far-reaching influence on diverse audiences.

3 benefits of social media in healthcare

Here's a closer look at three of the primary benefits you can get out of social media as a physician.

1. Cultivate your "Brand"

"What brand?" you might be thinking, especially if all that comes up when you Google your own name is "Dr. X, a physician at XYZ." If you stay within the confines of your employer when establishing your professional identity, though, what happens when you leave? Developing a presence on social media allows you to be known through an individual brand that will stay with you regardless of where you practice.

As a bonus, using social media to build your brand can help you market your practice to patients, build your credibility and be found by the media or groups looking for speakers.

Getting Started

  1. Be consistent. All platforms need to have the same profile name. If your name is already taken, look for a variation that can be consistent: for example, JaneDoeMD, JaneFDoeMD, DrJaneDoe and so on. Reserve this name on every platform, even if you aren't yet interested in using it.
  2. Look the part. Get a professional headshot and use it for your profile picture. No car selfies on business accounts!
  3. Watch and learn. Observe how others in your field successfully use social media and learn from them. Tag authors of studies you're commenting on and the writers of articles you're sharing. Engage in thoughtful discussions, and over time, people will begin to associate you with your area of specialty.

2. Spread evidenced-based education

"Doc, I looked up that medication you prescribed me and found some horror stories. I decided not to take it."

Social media is a fast and effective way to communicate and share medical information. Unfortunately, there's no shortage of misinformation to influence patients' decisions. On the internet, anyone is free to share their health opinions, including celebrities who are paid to recommend questionable products. Physicians can counteract biased pseudoscience by using social media to shape the conversation and deliver vital information to the public.

Of course, with social media influence comes power, and no matter what your aim in raising your profile, it's important to consider the ethical and professional implications of achieving your efforts, as ACP Internist suggests.

Ultimately, though, you can improve patients' overall health by providing evidence-based education on social media. At the same time, you're building your brand, both among current — and potential — patients and your wider professional community.

Getting Started

  1. Learn the rules. Of course, violating certain guidelines around sharing medical information can have disastrous consequences. Ethics, professional boundaries and standards of confidentiality need to be upheld when using social media in healthcare. In addition to these general standards, some institutions and employers have policies regarding their physicians' professional social media presence. Familiarize yourself with these to minimize the chance of inadvertently breaching policy. And before beginning, be sure to review the rules and best practices specific to the platforms you want to use.
  2. Know your audience. What information to share — and how and where to share it — depends on your target audience. Deliver information in an understandable, relatable and accessible way on the right platform. For example, if you want to reach college students, your message may fall flat on Facebook; if you're trying to educate an older population, you might not want to choose Instagram.
  3. Choose your approach. There are endless ways to capture the interest of your audience: translate scientific findings, comment on timely news topics, share a weekly health tip or educate about specific challenges and exciting discoveries in your field. Again, think about what will appeal to your target audience.

3. Reestablish a sense of community

The hospital "doctors' lounge" may be a thing of the past, but social media provides a great venue for physicians to come together and connect. Join colleagues from around the world to receive support, mentorship and camaraderie. In addition to the connections sparked by being active on a platform, private virtual physician groups for every imaginable specialty and interest exist.

Getting Started

  1. Join groups. Find physician groups on LinkedIn and Facebook by searching terms you're interested in (say, physicians in leadership, physician moms, radiology). If a group is a "closed," you can search for the title but cannot access the posts until you're a member. Private groups are hidden from search engines and can only be found through word of mouth.
  2. Follow and be followed. Many physicians are active on LinkedIn and Twitter. To build your social media network, search for professionals in your field and follow or connect with them. In many cases, they will follow you back. If not, the brand-building discussed above will help get people searching for you.
  3. Engage and interact. Interact with your colleagues virtually by commenting on and sharing their posts. Through collaborative engagement, you can develop a network. Work to build each other up and jump in to help out when pseudoscience unfairly attacks.

Setting the right course

Before you start, take time to define your goals. What problem will getting involved in social media help you solve? Are you looking for a way to build your patient base? Support your patients' health? Network for career opportunities? Once you determine your purpose, you can focus your efforts on the audiences, approaches and progress benchmarks that make the most sense.

Melissa Welby, MD
Lippincott Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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