Social Media Strategies for Your Medical Practice

March 4, 2014

New to social media or want to improve your presence? Four strategic approaches your medical practice should take.

When pediatrician Natasha Burgert launched a Facebook page and a Twitter account, @DoctorNatasha, in 2009, her social media strategy was simple: Share as much factual health information as possible with engaged readers, while rebutting the huge amount of misinformation that thrives on the Web.

Today, she has nearly 8,000 followers on Twitter, more than 1,400 "likes" for her practice's Facebook page, and her blog, KcKidsDoc.com, has a national following. She uses these outlets, in addition to YouTube and Google+, in tandem - for example, promoting blog posts on topics such as HPV or vaccinations by sharing links through her Twitter account.

And while Burgert insists promoting her practice wasn't her original goal, it has helped do just that.

"I use social media to share health information," says Burgert, who practices at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Mo. "My goal is help our kids in Kansas City make good health decisions. As a consequence to that, I think that patients and families in our community are very interested in what we do here, and we certainly get new patients to our practice because of our social media efforts."

Like Burgert, hundreds, if not thousands of physicians and physician practices have Twitter and Facebook accounts, and many even have blogs. But not all are using their accounts as effectively. If you don't have a strategy in place to use social media - which encompasses blogs and other outlets where anyone can share content and engage others - you're wasting your time and losing out on a valuable, low-cost opportunity.

According to a study highlighted by the American Academy of Family Physicians' (AAFP)  social media guide, more than 70 percent of primary-care physicians and oncologists use social media at least once a month to explore or contribute health information.

Whether you're trying to unveil important health messages, like Burgert, or promote your practice's cutting-edge services, taking a strategic approach to social media means going beyond posting a holiday greeting on your practice's Facebook page.

Here are four key social media strategies to employ.

Strategy #1: have a purpose

Social media can be a great tool for marketing your practice or getting a health message into the public. But if you don't have an objective for having a physician blog, or an account with a social media channel such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or LinkedIn, you may not reap too many benefits and your messages may fall on deaf ears.

"You are building a community of followers," says Dallas-based healthcare consultant Audrey McLaughlin, a contributor to Practice Notes, Physicians Practice's blog. "Everything you do in social media is to build a trusting expert relationship that supports the medical practice care you provide."

In determining your social media strategy, including the accounts you set up, consider your goals: For example, do you want to attract more of your "ideal" patients, such as baby boomer seniors, or young adults? Or, is your priority to inform your community about pressing health issues? McLaughlin says she works with medical practice clients to help them figure out their ideal patients, and then pick two to three social media outlets that tend to attract that type of patient.

That's exactly what Kansas City, Mo., pediatrician Raymond Cattaneo of Priority Care Pediatrics is doing. He launched his practice's Facebook page in 2010 with the goal of promoting it to new patients, and engaging existing ones - though at first a few of his colleagues were concerned about HIPAA and privacy. Today the page has more than 2,400 followers. His next goal: fine-tuning his practice's Twitter account so he can attract the patients who aren't as likely to use Facebook.

"Medicine right now is competitive and you need to go where your patients are," says Cattaneo. "And the fact of the matter is, some of the older parents are on Facebook, and the younger parents are on Instagram, on Twitter."

*For tips on how to get started with Twitter, visit bit.ly/twitterdocs.

Strategy #2: Post timely, relevant content

Cat videos are cute, but if you want your patients to take you seriously, they may not be the best thing to post to your Twitter feed - at least not too often.

While she occasionally posts something humorous to offer a bit of levity (such as a video spoof of babies doing something funny) Burgert almost always stays the course and uses all five of her social media outlets to educate patients on current topics and how they affect families, kids, and teens.

"With increased access to the Internet, a lot of what [patients] find creates a lot of anxiety," says Burgert. "There needs to be someone to interpret that … to provide reassurance and calm in the firestorm that is media and health information."

Cattaneo says he appeals to patients by offering a mix of timely content - from the "must know" stuff to a handful of fun items - but it is all selected with the patient in mind.

"We post something almost every day, and that can include our hours - I know on snow days we've posted, 'Hey, we're closing early today,' or fun videos on the holidays," says Cattaneo, who says he's received nothing but positive feedback from patients and their families, and also has a personal blog he says complements the practice's Facebook page."I've done simple questions - 'Do you do elf on the shelf?' - just to keep it a little more interactive."

It's also important to keep the account updated and active. "We try very hard to make sure our headlines, some of our photos, are changing on a fairly regular basis," says Reid Blackwelder, a Kingsport, Tenn., family physician and president of the AAFP, of his practice's Facebook page. "Doing this engages patients."

Strategy #3: Engage, but watch your delivery

When it comes to social media, it's not just what you post, but how you post it.

"You always want to be positive, you always want to be professional," says Blackwelder. "Are you going to be happy if your mother or brother reads it?"

In other words, consider how your messaging comes across: Are you ranting about problems in every other post? Are your blogs full of grammar errors? "Social media posts should use the same etiquette rules that one would use in real life," says Cattaneo.

Physicians should be careful, too, to avoid redundant or strictly promotional posts, says McLaughlin.

For docs who are getting social, common sense rules apply, says Burgert.

"Presenting your true personality is the beauty of these platforms, meanwhile you are presenting your public face to the world," she says. "If you are rude, rogue, or inappropriate, that will reflect on your reputation. Permanently. So, don't be a jerk."

Strategy #4: Avoid oversharing

Posting information about a problem patient may feel cathartic. But not only is doing so unprofessional, it could also get you into trouble with HIPAA or state medical boards if you spill any telling details.

One example: In 2011, Rhode Island's medical licensing board ordered a physician to pay a $500 administrative fee and attend a continuing education course because she ranted about a patient using identifying details - although she didn't use the patient's name.

 "You really should never ever put anything about patients," says Blackwelder. "Even if you think you're being anonymous, it can be dangerous. It's probably safer to post about particular problems."

According to the AAFP June 2013 social media guide, nearly all state medical boards agree that the following examples of oversharing would likely trigger an investigation:

• Posting photos of patients without their consent;

• Inappropriately contacting a patient (such as through a Facebook message or public Tweet); and

• Violating patient confidentiality by posting information containing potential identifiers.

One way physicians may get tripped up is when patients take the initiative and ask for medical input or advice on a social media forum.

"Don't let patients engage you with specific medical questions," says Blackwelder. "At that point you should pick up the phone and encourage them to come see you. Patients can say anything about their medical condition. You cannot. You're forbidden by HIPAA guidelines."

Marisa Torrieri is an associate editor at Physicians Practice. She can be reached at marisa.torrieri@ubm.com.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Physicians Practice.