From building a great website to getting social-media savvy, here's what physicians should do to boost their cyber profiles.
Back in 2006, when the term "social media" had been coined but was not widely popularized, family physician Mike Sevilla enjoyed reading blogs in his spare time.
"I was fascinated by them," Salem, Ohio-based Sevilla recalls. "I became interested in, 'are there any physicians or medical providers that are writing blogs?' And I found some."
Following the example of the brave, few physician blogger pioneers on the World Wide Web, Sevilla launched his "Doctor Anonymous" blog, DoctorAnonymous.com, though he wasn't sure what he was going to do with it. After a few months of trial and error - "I talked about patients in the first few months, which I know [now] is a really bad idea" - Sevilla found his voice and a following among other physicians and patients. Within three years, his blog, which focused on his day-to-day experiences as a doctor, was cited as one of the best physician blogs to read by trade and consumer media.
Today, Sevilla speaks to physician groups on how to brand themselves in cyberspace, and has graced the cover of physician journals as a featured expert on social media and blogging. Even better, in 2011, he had an influx of "30 to 50" new patients - the highest influx he's seen in ten years - which he directly attributes to his online presence.
"This past year was the most I've had growth-wise specifically because of my social media presence," he says.
Sevilla isn't the only physician who is reaping the benefits of having a great Internet brand.
As more and more patients rely on the Internet to fuel their search for great physicians, having a solid, reputable Internet presence is more important than ever. And a small, but growing number of doctors are catching on to this reality. But even if your practice already has a website, chances are most physicians could - and should - be doing more to boost their online brands.
First, assess your web presence
Fairfax, Va.-based retina eye specialist/ophthalmologist Randall Wong didn't really think about online branding much until a few years ago, when his attorney wife Amy bought two tickets as an anniversary gift to an Internet marketing seminar at a Chicago hotel.
"There were about 500 people in this hotel, and there was [only] one doctor and one lawyer," he recalls.
Today, many more physicians are interested in improving their brand, says Wong, who now leads seminars on Internet marketing for other doctors when he isn't practicing medicine or blogging.
For physicians interested in launching or revamping their online brand - to achieve more notoriety and a boost in new patients, like Wong and Sevilla - there are a few important steps that must be taken first. For starters, physicians need to assess the state of their existing Web presence.
"You need to have a presence on the Internet so you can be validated when patients are searching for a new doctor," says Wong.
Therefore, if your practice has a Web page, but it isn't coming up at the top of your search list, you might need to use techniques to boost your search engine optimization (SEO) rankings. SEO refers to how high a certain website ranks when someone searches for specific search terms, such as "Dr. Rob Smith" or "Pediatrician San Francisco."
So if, for example, your practice is in San Francisco but your practice's website falls on the second page of Google, patients may be calling up other practices because they don't know yours exists.
"There have been a few studies recently that showed that patients, lacking any other information on a doctor, tend to look [for one] primarily based on location," says Laurie Morgan, a San Francisco-based healthcare consultant with Capko & Co. "Somebody's going to Google 'pediatrician San Francisco' or 'pediatrician Pasadena.' One of the first things physicians have to be aware of is what's happening on Google and taking advantage of that."
If you want more patients to find your Web page, Morgan suggests getting familiar with "Google Places," a feature of the search engine that allows you to type in information about your practice, which typically comes up as a simple listing with a map. "Usually it's empty … a pretty bland, barren entry," says Morgan. "You can claim that record and flesh it out with pictures and descriptions of your practice. Google Places results appear higher in basic searches."
And while you are updating your Google Places page, Morgan suggests updating your listings on physician-rating sites, such as HealthGrades. "A lot of data in health-reviewing sites come from public databases and other sources that can be incorrect," says Morgan. "Physicians move and rating sites may have a different address."
Next, assess your website
Speaking of Web pages, you need to take a good look to see if your practice website is doing what it is supposed to do: attracting patients and providing information.
A good website is one that is clean and professional looking, and up to date.
Ask yourself if your website evokes a pleasurable feeling or a bad feeling. Photos of diseases or too many "before" pictures on the home page, for example, may be off-putting.
"You don't need to see the graphics of every single malady under the sun," adds Morgan.
But cleaning up your website or creating one doesn't have to cost a lot. In fact, says Morgan, many practices that rely on pricy third-party vendors to create their websites may have trouble keeping them updated.
"One mistake that practices make is they decide they're going to have a website, and then they put it up and figure, 'okay that's done,' and don't touch it for a year," says Morgan. "You need one that is easy to build and maintain, such as a website from WordPress."
Okay, so you've got the website and Web presence down. What else can you do to really improve your reputation or get more patients into your practice - while boosting your SEO?
One idea for physicians is to consider writing a blog that's related to their specialization, such as geriatrics or family medicine.
Since Wong's expertise is retina eye issues, he launched the blog-focused site RetinaEyeDoctor.com. After launching the site, he used basic content-marketing techniques to attract users, writing relevant articles on topics such as retina tests, retinal care, and retinal detachment.
"Within six months, I ranked number one in the world for the search term 'retina eye doctor,'" Wong recalls. "And then I just kept writing and writing."
In addition to keeping up his own blog, Wong also writes for ophthalmologist and other physician journals.
"I get patients nationally now because of the website," says Wong. "And my local referral rate has gone through the roof. As a surgeon, I gauge my growth by the number of surgical cases I do per year, and I am up 30 percent more than last year."
As with your practice's website, a blog-focused website doesn't have to be an expensive endeavor: Sevilla uses Blogger, the free Google blog engine, which he believes gives him better SEO output.
Additionally, physicians who don't have time or interest in launching their own blog can look into blogging for other physician-written online outlets, such as KevinMD.
And for the not-so-literary types, today's blogs don't have to be limited to the written word.
Sevilla, who last year launched a sequel to his Doctor Anonymous blog, called Family Medicine Rocks (FamilyMedicineRocks.com), now posts audio and video content and sends out links to his posts via his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Regardless of the blog style, Amy Wong, a Bethesda-based employment and labor attorney married to Randall Wong, advises physicians to include a disclaimer on every page of their site.
"If a random person says they got advice [on the blog] to take a certain drug, there could be potential for a malpractice suit," says Amy Wong.
A disclaimer should say something to the effect of, "This content is for informational purposes and does not substitute for medical advice from your physician," she advises.
Know how to socially network
Unless you've been practicing medicine in a cave, you've heard about social networking, and perhaps even created your own Facebook page. But while the idea that social media can boost a physician's online reputation is euphoric, physicians who think they can set up a Twitter account and automatically get an influx of patients will likely end up disappointed.
"There are so many people that think just by having a Twitter account and think that posting something ridiculous is going to make them go viral," says Randall Wong.
A good rule of thumb is to consider the nature of the social media outlet before deciding how to use it.
While LinkedIn might be a great site to meet other physicians and look for job opportunities, it isn't going to help you boost referrals or connect with patients. But using Facebook to post information patients want to know (such as flu-shot updates), or using Twitter to follow medical news, would constitute appropriate usage, says Sevilla.
That being said, Amy Wong cautions physicians to make sure they're not posting anything on a social network site that identifies a patient - including photographs.
"It has to be generic, like a picture of a retina, or something that has no tie to a patient."
For physicians who like to use Facebook but want to have a separate professional and personal online presence, Amy Wong suggests creating a fan page.
"It creates a wall between your personal identity and your professional identity," says Amy Wong. "You don't need to have your Facebook patients knowing what you're doing on the weekends."
Marisa Torrieri is an associate editor for Physicians Practice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Physicians Practice.