As social media usage continues to expand beyond the personal realm, it’s not surprising that doctors are exploring its potential for enhancing their communication with patients. The business world’s increasing reliance on social media has naturally led physicians to consider whether it offers any advantages in improving care or strengthening their financial base. The American College of Physicians (ACP), the second-largest physicians’ group in the U.S., has given thought to the potential risks and benefits attached to doctors’ use of social media, and they have recently released a position paper detailing their recommendations.
Proceed with Caution
The press release summarizing this position paper strikes a cautionary note, and raises interesting new issues that many physicians and patients probably never previously contemplated: The ACP urges physicians to keep personal and professional profiles separate, and to avoid “liking” or friending patients. Communication with patients by text message regarding medical topics is likewise discouraged, except in cases in which the physician knows the patient well and has previously secured permission for this means of contact. Even email, while perhaps more secure than text message, must be used with great caution when communicating with patients.
The concerns voiced by ACP center on confidentiality and the risk of substituting online contact for in-person consultation. While the association recognizes the clear benefit of increasing physicians’ accessibility, it suggests that digital communication between doctor and patient be restricted to situations in which the online conversation is going to be followed up by an in-person office visit.
Not Yet the Norm
It’s worth noting that, while clearly expressing reservations, the ACP did not broadcast a blanket rejection of the idea of doctors and patients connecting via social media. The shape of internet conversation continues to evolve, and it’s obvious that in the near future, some form of social media contact between doctors and patients will become the norm. Given that fact, it’s important to have a look at the types of tools that are currently available to physicians.
Hootsuite has become one of the staple social media tools in one’s arsenal for B2B and B2C organizations alike — and healthcare is no different. More healthcare institutions, hospitals, group practices, and solo practitioners are utilizing Hootsuite for brand and patient engagement. One hospital utilized Hootsuite to “live tweet” during a surgical procedure to help educate their patients. A medical school in the Caribbean is using Hootsuite to aid in their recruitment efforts. Group practices are using the tool to manage their content, streamline their profiles and monitor social communications. And solo practitioners have found that Hootsuite makes it easy to monitor their brand and engage with potential patients on any of the major social media networks.
One of the more general tools for contact management is Nimble, a web-based relationship management solution that unifies the four C’s (“contacts, calendar, communications and collaborations”) in one simple platform. Nimble merges activity from Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook with an office’s business contacts, so that it’s possible to keep track of all the conversations currently being generated by the people important to your business or practice. In this way, customer relationships are easy to nurture and advance, and there is no need to jump back and forth between social media websites. The utility of this customer relationship management (CRM) tool is obvious, and PC Magazine had good reason for awarding it “Editors Choice” status. It is not specifically tailored for the medical provider, however, and would not be helpful in communicating personal information to a patient. For direct patient engagement, PostwireHealth may be a more appropriate tool.
A more specialized — and more private — channel through which doctors and patients can communicate online is Postwire Health. Post Wire Health characterizes itself as a HIPAA-compliant “Patient Engagement Tool,” and it works in conjunction with office visits. The medical practitioner videotapes the office interaction with the patient, and then shares the video (together with other supplementary information) with the patient through the patient’s personal online portal. This enables the patient to revisit and review the interaction as many times as they wish, so that there is no danger of forgetting any part of the provider’s advice. When this type of communication is used by a practitioner who gives specific exercises or discharge instructions, it empowers the patient by giving them the chance to listen over and over again. This functionality is extended into the area of clinical counseling, so that patients can listen at home to their therapy consultation and have the chance to remember everything the therapist said.
Medical Marketing or Patient Engagement?
When evaluating which type of social media channel to reach out through, it’s important not to lose track of your reasons for using social media in the first place. If you’re involved in medical marketing, your social media use will center on branding and accessibility. For example, a physician could use Nimble to manage various posts and public conversations on medically valid health tips, and to present ways that their medical practice provides outstanding service. This kind of content can be shared from one patient to the next, through their personal networks, and can be a friendly (but still professional) way for a medical practitioner to engage in marketing.
Individual patient treatment discussions are a very different kind of social media engagement, since confidentiality laws require these conversations to be private, restricted to one doctor and one patient. A doctor can be in touch with a patient via email, or can make use of a secure, encrypted platform such as Postwire Health. This type of online conversation will not give rise to a flurry of sharing, but will enhance the individual patient’s experience and may attract new patients via word of mouth.
Healthcare providers’ professional use of social media is still in its early days, and patients’ expectations of their doctors’ online accessibility will continue to evolve in coming seasons.
Jonathan Catley is the Online Marketing Manager for MD Connect, Inc, a performance-based online medical marketing agency. Jonathan currently oversees the sales and marketing functions at MD Connect and is a strong proponent of social selling. You can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.