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Privacy in a Social Media World

Privacy in a Social Media World

One patient at MacArthur OB/GYN had a question about moving her ovulation. Others spoke freely about their experiences with an endometrial ablation procedure. Most just wanted to say “thanks” to the physicians and show off pictures of their newborns.

These medical questions and concerns — as well as helpful information on women’s health — are all online at the practice’s Facebook page.

“We are taking this giant world we live in, and we are turning it into this small town where people are interacting,” says Jeff Livingston, one of five OB/GYNs and one nurse practitioner at MacArthur OB/GYN in Irving, Texas.

MacArthur OB/GYN’s online community of about 600 people (and counting) provides a forum for questions and information shared between physicians and patients. Livingston monitors it daily, and encourages the discussions by posting links and questions.

Livingston is among a growing number of physicians joining social media networks as a way to share information with patients or connect with their colleagues. In fact, 60 percent of physicians reported using or being interested in using online communities, according to an early 2009 survey by Manhattan Research. And all signs point to this number continuing to rise.

But as the status updating, Tweeting, and blogging increases, questions about appropriate online content and patient privacy arise. Should a physician “friend” a patient online? Will patients put your practice at risk and raise privacy red flags by posting their personal health information on the public forum? What if the doc shares too much? Are you exposing your practice to a lawsuit risk by engaging online?

For Livingston and others, online networks have become a necessary venue for connecting — and many physicians are embracing so-called Web 2.0 without ill effects. With a few guidelines and a lot of common sense, social media can be a boon for your practice and your patients.

Where your patients are

If you’ve been reluctant to hop onto the social media bandwagon, it might be time to consider it. Patients are increasingly turning to the Internet for healthcare information. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 60 percent of adults look online for health information. Plus, 35 percent of adults used social media for health and medical purposes last year, Manhattan Research found.

If this is where patients are turning for health and provider information, perhaps it’s where you should be as well, to best educate them and reach new ones?

Livingston first realized his audience was online more than five years ago when he was conducting outreach education to teens about STDs and pregnancy prevention. He noticed his 15-year-old daughter interacting with her friends on the networking site MySpace, and as he put it, “A light bulb went off. Here I am trying to connect with young people in my community and I am not talking to them in the way they actually talk.”

His daughter helped him build his MySpace page, and he has since expanded to Facebook and Twitter, where he manages the messages for his practice. Now, the practice’s Facebook page is a thriving forum where Livingston shares relevant and credible healthcare information and his patients post photos and discussions.

But before signing up for an account, ask yourself why you’re entering the social media realm. Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, which worked with the Massachusetts Medical Society to promote their organization, says physicians should ask the question: What’s the point of it all?

And there can be several answers that garner benefits for your practice. Engaging online through social media can allow physicians to show — not just tell — that they are the experts. Your Web site might say you’re the best-trained or the most knowledgeable endocrinologist, but how about demonstrating that by offering helpful information and resources?

Social networks also can boost your search-engine rankings, notes Tobin, who is also the author of “Social Media Is a Cocktail Party.” Posts on Facebook and blogs, for example, are indexed and searched by Google and other engines, so fresh content will appear high on the list when a patient searches for a physician online.

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