Safe Ways to Use Social Media in Your Medical Practice

May 18, 2012

If you're looking for the best way to use social media profitably, safely, and without taking one day off a week to produce six full-length articles on Facebook, here’s some concise direction.

It seems that every week a regulating body or organization comes out with "social media guidelines" for physicians.

Apparently lots of us are misbehaving online and need our hands slapped and correctional discipline administered.

I don't know how widespread this online physician misbehavior is, but most of the examples I read about are simply online extensions of HIPAA violations.

For example, an emergency room doctor in Rhode Island discussed a patient’s case on Facebook. The text contained enough detail to allow the patient involved to be identified. This doctor was fired.

I don't post to my personal Facebook account very often - maybe once a month. I do skim through friends' posts every couple of weeks, and I'm amazed at the in-depth personal information some people share.

Most of the harm being done by doctors in the world of social media can be prevented with heavy doses of common sense.

Frankly, if you need a guideline from some regulatory board to tell you how to use Facebook, you've got bigger professional problems to deal with than crafting a benign social media strategy.

My question for you is: How can you use social media profitably, but efficiently?

To avoid legal and regulatory entanglements, the safest role to play is that of patient educator. Once you expand beyond this role to direct patient interaction, giving specific medical advice, publicly discussing specific cases, things get a whole lot messier - I don't advise it.

There are three primary roles you can play when contributing your expertise on social media.

Let's take a 30,000-foot look at these three social media roles and how you can adopt one or all of these when you promote your practice and start getting engaged online.

Role 1: Information Creator

You write about any topic within your area of expertise; produce videos, podcasts, blog articles. Then spread links to that information in social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest.

This is the most time-intensive role you can play. It requires pre-existing knowledge, expertise, or the time to perform research. You are the author of original content.

Creating something de novo is always the slowest way to establish credibility, expertise, and stake your claim in a local market before your competitors. But it may be the most long-lasting and effective technique.

If you're the first physician in your local market to produce online guides, videos, and a comprehensive website on your topic of expertise, it's unlikely you will be de-throned from that position; you've created a barrier to entry for other competitors.

Role 2: Information Curator

Most of us are familiar with the concept of curation from the museum industry. A curator collects, organizes, and helps people understand some body of knowledge or information.

As an information curator, you collect, sift, and sort through the avalanche of medical news, research, and articles published each month in your field of interest or specialization.

Your readers, viewers, current patients, and potential patients will see you as a trusted gatekeeper, making sure that only the most vital and relevant information gets to the people who need it.

They’ll start to rely on you to filter the nonsense, clarify muddy media reports, and show them where to find truth.

Whether deserved or not, each day, a portion of the American public sees network news anchors in this way. They serve as filters through which vital pieces of information pass.

As an information curator, you need to have your finger on the pulse of the latest news or research in your field. It’s time-consuming, but there are shortcuts like setting up Google Alerts, that will help.

Role 3: Conversation Contributor

This one is different in many ways than the first two. It’s external to your own website or social media channel.

As a contributor, you are adding your two cents or linking to your existing helpful information, articles, or content as a part of an existing online conversation.

Adding your expertise to a conversation could involve making comments in an online forum for physicians, like Sermo, or commenting on a blog post on a relevant clinical topic.

This strategy is usually very quick, can generate website traffic or help establish professional connections with other physicians online, and is a great way to get started exploring medical social media.

Combining Roles - Creation, Curation, and Contributor

The best approach is to apply all of these strategies when promoting your practice online and elsewhere.

For example, on my website, I have static web pages that serve as evergreen patient education articles on the most common things I treat.

My blog section lets me quickly comment on a recent news item or put together a short article on a trending topic.

Finally, I leave comments throughout the internet on relevant blogs and other social media sites (like YouTube channels) to add to conversations and point others to my website for more information.

It’s easy to see that you’ll have your hands full producing and finding great content and information using just these three strategies - you won’t have time to violate social media guidelines.

Find out more about C. Noel Henley and our other Practice Notes bloggers.