eHealthcare Strategy & Trends

The Doctor Will Tweet You Now: Is There a Compelling Case for a Physician-Directed Social Media Strategy?

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Ask the Expert … with Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon has been in healthcare marketing for more than 20 years. She has taught at several California universities and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2008. You can reach her at Sussol [at] gmail [dot] com.

Dial back five years and a discussion of physicians and social media would have seemed quite odd. Did we really expect physicians asking to be “liked” on Facebook? What was next? Tweeting during surgery? Fast-forward to now, and the answers are “Yes” and “Yes.” Or, more accurately, “Been there. Done that. What else is new?”

According to the online physician learning collaborative QuantiaMD, 90 percent of physicians report that they use at least one social media site personally. And with so much personal use, the possibility of crossover into their professional worlds seems almost certain. Gabriel Bosslet, MD, an internist at Indiana University Health, describes the rise in interest in social media among physicians as “meteoric.”

Kevin Pho, MD, who writes, the popular blog on physicians and social media, cites two compelling reasons for physicians to actively participate in social media: 1) Connecting with patients and 2) Reputation management.

Making connections with patients

Let’s start with establishing connections with patients. With eight out of 10 patients searching for health information online, there’s obviously a hunger for obtaining quick, accurate online healthcare advice. Unfortunately, some of those online users are going to unreliable sources and either ignoring important symptoms or scaring themselves silly. (Microsoft researchers defined the word cyberchondria as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.”) Clearly, doctors who regularly connect with patients online are much more reliable sources for information than Yahoo! Answers, which conspicuously disclaims any responsibility for the accuracy of answers provided by posters. And, with healthcare reform kicking in, it’s clear that patients have both clinical and administrative questions that demand reliable responses.

Pho says that his “aha” moment about the importance of social media happened several years ago when news began to leak about the arthritis drug Vioxx and its potential link to heart attack or stroke. Pho blogged about the issue at a time when he didn’t think his blog had many loyal followers. To his surprise, his own patients started thanking him for his informative pieces. “It struck me what a powerful tool I had to connect with patients,” he says.

In addition to Pho, there are many examples of physicians who have become masters of connecting with patients through social media. Jay Harness, MD, a breast surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA, launched the website, which offers more than 200 YouTube videos of doctors (including Harness) providing health information. Visitors can also submit questions. Since their launch last November, the videos have been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

Of course, not all doctors will want to devote the time or consistent study of social media techniques to maintain a presence. However, they could join the editorial boards of established health information sites, form a discussion board with other medical colleagues, or partner with their affiliated hospitals’ social media efforts.

Additionally, social media provides an opportunity for physicians to connect with one another. Sermo, the exclusive online physician community founded in 2006, provides an opportunity for doctors to exchange clinical information, as well as discuss pressing issues such as healthcare reform.

Social media for reputation management

Now let’s talk about reputation management, which is becoming more critical for physicians in an age when doctors are receiving a plethora of online consumer ratings. The trick to online reputation management is to take control of the search engine process and literally “rise above” any negative reviews. That isn’t always easy, given the search engine dominance of HealthGrades and Vitals in most markets. As most physicians know, a HealthGrades or Vitals entry (often with consumer ratings) almost always rises to the top for most online physician searches. Even more disconcerting are the consumer sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp, which invite consumers to rate doctors right alongside local house painters and bistros. Unfortunately, comments are not always positive. As we all know in marketing, a customer who has a good experience will tell one friend, but if there’s a poor experience, that person will want to tell everyone.

In the old days, simply seeding personal website copy with key search terms was enough to take control of search engine marketing, but today it’s more complex. Google’s Panda and Penguin programs were originally designed to limit search engine spamming, but the latest updates also penalize many so-called “white hat” search engine tactics, such as adding multiple links or super-optimizing pages. Now, search engines give higher rankings to rich content, including video and participation in social media.

How can physicians ensure better search results and, ultimately, improve their reputation? A robust presence on Google+, for example, will result in optimizing one’s profile on Google. Physicians may also want to try the Google+ Hangout feature that lets them chat with up to nine participants (which may be perfect for a small patient information session). A presence on LinkedIn, too, is a good idea. Many physicians prefer LinkedIn to other sites because of its professional slant.

Advising doctors to have a Facebook profile is another issue. If they do want to go the Facebook route, then the advice is to keep a personal Facebook page separate from the professional one. Twitter is also another great tool that needs to be used with obvious discretion. We’ve all read about politicians and athletes misusing Twitter, primarily because they believe it’s a tool only for communicating with a close circle of people – it’s not, but it is considerably more powerful if used well.

Studies show that video is becoming one of the best activities for search engine optimization as well as patient engagement. Short, well-edited videos provide a total picture of the physician and come close to replicating the patient-doctor visit. Video is obviously also preferable for physicians who aren’t natural writers. For those who truly want to commit to YouTube, take a look at 1HappyDiabetic, the YouTube channel set up by vlogger Bill Woods. Woods is a patient, not a doctor, but he covers topics ranging from everyday living tips to advice for newly diagnosed diabetics. He also has extended the community to his website and responds to questions.

Is it socially acceptable to ask for good reviews? Online rating agencies such as Yelp discourage solicited reviews and warn that they will be filtered, right along with staff members who think they’re being helpful by posting reviews under pseudonyms. Instead, they suggest posting a Yelp sticker in the office and online. More realistically, it doesn’t hurt to ask a satisfied patient to recommend a practice on social sites. Just don’t provide the script of what to write.

Of course, there’s always the realm “where only the bold dare go,” which includes those new media marketing tools that may still be considered a bit more edgy. Groupon and LivingSocial, for example, have been filling up email boxes with daily deals since 2008. While dental cleanings, acupuncture, chiropractic services, and even vision exams may seem commonplace, other medical procedures and tests may raise eyebrows.

Opportunities for healthcare marketers

Clearly, with more physicians making good use of social media, it’s logical that marketers should also use these tools to communicate with “connected” doctors. Several health systems are already incorporating social media into their physician engagement plans. Here are a few trends we’re currently spotting:

  1. App Technology. Physicians love their smartphones just like the rest of us. Popular apps for doctors include Medscape, Epocrates, iRadiology, MedPage Today Mobile, Medical Radio, and MedCalc. At my health system, St. Joseph Health, we just launched an app to take the place of the traditional medical staff newsletter. The keys to success of “The SJH Pulse” have been frequent content updates, robust health industry news, and links to the rounding tool for the system’s electronic medical record. Just to add some excitement to the app’s debut, we designed special smartphone covers with The Pulse logo. In the coming months, we also plan to add online continuing medical education programs to the app.
    Similarly, University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital has an app provider directory for smartphones. The application is used by clinicians and patients to look up doctors. It features information about pediatric specialists, a list of specialties, and a pediatric dosage calculator.
  2. Blogs. Doctors who love to blog are wonderful, especially for healthcare marketers. The Facebook page of Boston Children’s Hospital often includes links to blog posts from its physicians. Claire McCarthy, MD, is a frequent blogger for the hospital as well as for Huffington Post. Her entries are particularly insightful as she presents medical information from the perspective of both a doctor and a mother.
    Although rarer, doctor-to-doctor blogs are also valuable. Several years ago, MemorialCare Health System in Southern California used a blog to help physicians learn more about electronic medical record implementation.
  3. Twitter. Hospitals are quickly learning that doctors are on Twitter and will follow a healthcare organization’s Twitter feeds if the content is relevant to capture their attention. Healthcare organizations should also look to partner with Twitter-enthusiast doctors. Currently, there are some 1,300 doctors who have added themselves to, a site that lists “the most influential doctors on Twitter.”Another helpful strategy is to assist doctors with setting up digital dashboards. For example, provide stats on visits to physician bio Web pages. And don’t forget to recommend Klout and other methods for busy doctors to monitor their own social media effectiveness.

Clearly, physician enthusiasm for social media will grow even more and, most likely, at exponential rates. Smart organizations will reach out to doctors and partner with them to make the most of their social media presence.