Most businesses that have any sort of presence on the internet are coming to realize that social media can be a powerful tool in marketing and promoting their products and services. But is it right for healthcare providers to follow suit? If you do a little searching, you’ll find many doctors, dentists, hospitals, and nursing homes active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google +. Marketing experts agree that the time is right for medical professionals to test the waters, but there are some guidelines healthcare providers will need to know before jumping in with both feet.
Why bother with social media in the first place? There are several reasons. The days of setting up a website and waiting for clients to find you on the internet are gone (if they ever existed).
Social Media Benefits for a Medical Practice:
- Engage your patients
- Build trust
- Become a resource
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Social media helps you reach out, connect and engage with people. Patients want to see that there are real people in your office who really care and are there to help. You can also build more trust and loyalty with clients by communicating with them and giving them updated information and engaging them in conversation. Your office can also become a resource on healthcare and related topics that patients will genuinely appreciate. And finally, SEO: As you implement social media use you are helping your practice’s ranking on Google and other search engines, which makes it much easier for a new patient to find you in an internet search. Since most people Google everything they’re looking for, including a new physician, you want to be at the top of the list!
The benefits of using social media to share information and maintain better relationships with patients are easy to see, but healthcare providers must play by different rules than, say, a hardware store or a coffee shop. The first thing you must do is to put a social media policy into place for your office and make everyone in the practice aware of the guidelines.
Social Media Guidelines are Important to:
- Protect the privacy of patients
- Keep a professional reputation
- Avoid questions regarding medical advice
Protecting your patients’ privacy should be the first priority when using social media. Never post a picture or anything about a patient without their written permission. Even with written permission, you need to evaluate if it is the right thing for your practice. For example, an orthodontist makes it a practice to take a before, during and after picture of all her patients receiving braces. With the patient’s written permission (or the parents’ in the case of minors) she posts the photos on the practice’s Facebook page showing the progress along the way and the final finished product: A beautiful smile! She does not use names. This is a great way to showcase her expertise and the number of patients she is working with. And it’s effective. Patients and parents are going to the Facebook page to look for the pictures and then they’re interacting with the orthodontist and her staff. But that same strategy might not be such a great idea for other specialties where the treatment is more sensitive and should be kept private. Numerous physicians have had HIPAA complaints filed against them just for describing a patient’s treatment, without the use of a name, on social media.
Physicians and all employees need to know that there are boundaries that can’t be crossed with their own personal social media sites as well. Your reputation as a professional could be ruined by posting the wrong kind of personal information on social media. Specifically spell out the boundaries so there is no question about what can and can’t be shared online. There are many resources online that can help you write a social media policy. For example, the AMA report, “Professionalism in the Use of Social Media,” can be very helpful. You should also be familiar with the HIPAA and HITECH rules regarding protection of patient health information.
Of course you don’t want any of your social media pages to become a place where patients or the public are asking for medical advice. This could have dangerous implications for medical malpractice claims as well as HIPAA violations. Medical malpractice and professional liability insurance policies will not cover this type claim. So you’ll want to make it clear that this is not the place for specific medical questions. If you get questions coming in through social media, the best way to handle them is to direct the patient to call the office to make an appointment or call 911 if there is an emergency. It may sound obvious, even ridiculous, but you’d be surprised at the number of people looking for free medical advice on the internet – some of them don’t have the best intentions. There are other ways to privately communicate with patients about specific private health information and advice. Telemedicine is a growing field where physicians communicate through encrypted email, secure texting and other forms of electronic technology including two-way video. Many medical malpractice insurance policies will cover telemedicine when requested because it is private and secure communication.
In a world where nearly everyone is using the internet and social media in everyday life, healthcare providers need to become comfortable using it to help their practices stay connected and relevant. So don’t be afraid to get involved. Start by putting a social media policy in place, educate your staff, and begin enjoying the potential of social media to promote your practice.
This post was written by Monte Shields.