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Social Media in Healthcare: Why You Should Like Healthcare

Exploring the value of joining the online community

by Bill Reichart, MDiv
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2013

"Change is the only constant." Those words spoken by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus 2,500 years ago are even truer today. Certainly the simple and provincial people of Heraclitus’ day could never have imagined the seismic rate of change that our society experiences and endures every single day. Part of that change has included the role of social media in the ways that families, churches, communities and organizations connect and communicate with one another.

Social media has become ubiquitous in our culture. At the time of this writing, Facebook has more than one billion users, Instagram just hit the 100 million mark and Twitter is one of the fastest growing networks, topping off at 140 million users and growing. With almost absolute certainty, it is guaranteed that those numbers are going to rise even more in the months ahead. Social media is not a fad, it has become one of the ways we communicate, connect and collaborate with one another.

Perhaps you already personally use social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to connect with your family and friends. You may post family pictures, share a story or anecdote or simply use it to reconnect with a long lost friend. Yet is social media merely a frivolous pastime? Or does social media have a professional and practical role within medicine? Because social media is an ever-evolving and changing technology and medium, there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding how to effectively leverage and appropriately use it within medicine. Perhaps you are asking an entirely different set of questions. In a world filled with countless noise, chatter and distractions, some healthcare professionals—who are already over-leveraged and stressed—would ask, why even bother? Why do I need another device to check and "thing" to do in my life? Is there any real value in investing my time and energy in another online activity?

Although every individual healthcare professional needs to answer those questions for themselves, I do honestly believe there is real and tangible value in entering into this world of social media. If you are reluctant to engage with this vast online sea of pings, likes and tweets, I would encourage you to at least try it. Don’t worry about diving in headfirst. Wade into the shallow end and venture into exploring and trying social media at some level. But even as you do, it should be done with a clear and sober understanding of what you want to accomplish and how you want to use it.

Benefits of Using Social Media

Dr. Kevin Pho, an internist in Nashua, New Hampshire, is a popular medical blogger who engages with his patients via Facebook and Twitter (@KevinMD). He says about social media that, "These are powerful, tremendously influential tools, doctors should be taking advantage of the opportunity." More and more doctors are beginning to experience the real and tangible benefits of using social media for their practices and their patients. Here are some of those benefits.

Use social media to contribute to your professional development.
Social media can serve as a virtual, online doctor’s lounge. Doctors can use Twitter and Facebook to follow their colleagues, health and professional organizations, periodicals and health-related sites in order to participate in the conversation on which journal articles or clinical research pieces are the most worthwhile. Because social media is just that—"social"—it goes beyond just being a tool for research and information collection but also helps develop real communication and conversation. Social media can help a doctor connect with colleagues around the world to talk shop and network. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook expand the doctor’s reach beyond the doctor’s lounge down the hospital corridor, helping to connect them to thousands of people throughout the country and around the world.

Executive Director of the Georgia Society of the American College of Surgeons Kathy Drake Browning (@GaSACS) uses Twitter, Facebook and blogging to not only help her organization connect with its members but also to help the members connect with one another: "The biggest value for the physician organization is the ability to provide daily contact with their members and to remain relevant. For the individual physicians, this provides a single location to get information that is tailored for their needs."

Use social media to guard your online reputation.
The fact is, people are talking about you online. They are grading you and commenting about you on various websites. The benefit of social media is that it lets you monitor, guard and shape your online reputation. Instead of just being a victim of what others say about you online, social media allows you get ahead of the conversation. On Twitter and Facebook, you get to craft the message and share your expertise with others. With LinkedIn, the professional social networking site now with more than 135 million users, you can put forward an online Curriculum Vitae with personal recommendations, experience, education, skill and expertise. A LinkedIn profile can provide you with a great online first impression since Google gives profiles a high ranking visibility upon a search for your name.

Use social media to market your practice.
If you have ever had to squirrel away money for a marketing budget, you know that it can be a sizable chunk of change to market and advertise in magazines, billboards, radio and direct mail. Social media is practically FREE. Dr. Carmen Kavali, (@DrKavali) a plastic surgeon in Atlanta, Georgia, says that social media posts on her practice’s Facebook page and Twitter account "increase our web visibility, which is key to our overall marketing." Kathy Drake Browning sees the same benefit:

"Many patients are now using the internet to gain knowledge and information when deciding treatment options and/or choosing a physician in non emergent cases, for example, general surgery, bariatrics (weight loss) surgery, orthopedics (surgical and non surgical), urology (surgical and non surgical), gynecology (surgical and non surgical), pediatrics, obstetrics and internal medicine. Consequently, physician practice marketing has become important and the use of social media can be a very effective and cost efficient component of a marketing plan."

But you may be asking - is there a real, tangible return on investment with social media? Yes, according to Dr. Howard Luks (@hjluks). In Bringing the Social Media #Revolution to Health Care, Dr. Luks measured that 7 to 10 percent of new patients entering his practice came because of his web and social media presence.

Use social media to connect in the space that your patients already occupy.
People are using social media more and more than ever. You don’t have to go looking to connect with patients; they are already engaged with Facebook and Twitter. Yet social media has become not only a place for them to connect but also to be informed. Patients are getting health information from online sources, especially social media, and have a high measure of trust with the information shared on social media by doctors and health organizations.

Some Pitfalls and Cautions

It is important to discuss the potential perils and pitfalls so that you go into this new world of social media with your eyes wide open. Just like any tool, used the wrong way or inappropriately, social media can have dire consequences and repercussions. Today, there is much more scrutiny regarding social media’s use and practice within the medical community. Medical boards are actively involved in investigating inappropriate use and conduct of doctors online. In fact, 71 percent of medical boards, at some time, have investigated doctors for posting questionable content online.

A few of the activities that can possibly draw the attention of medical boards and may destroy your credibility may include:

  • Posting pictures of patients online without their permission
  • Misinformation on the physician practice website
  • Inappropriately contacting, "friending" or interacting with patients online, especially on Facebook
  • Posting misleading information about outcomes of drugs or procedures
  • Misrepresenting your credentials
  • Not disclosing conflicts of interests

As doctors consider using social media, privacy of their patients must be a chief concern. Two sets of regulations are front and center when considering privacy issues: HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act). These regulations give guidance on how to protect patients’ privacy regarding their personal health information, and these regulations must also inform and guide doctors concerning their use of social medicine.

With all of these potential ethical landmines, wouldn’t it just make sense for doctors to simply steer clear of social media? I believe that would simply be an unfortunate overreaction because there are ways to appropriately guard and protect yourself.

First, simply use common sense.
Ryan Greysen, MD, assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, offers the following as a guideline for using social media well: "People can really do a lot to stay out of trouble by applying common sense and avoiding the trap that you can do something online you wouldn’t do in real life."

Set up boundaries between your professional and personal social media presence.
Even though 34 percent of physicians have received a "friend" request from a patient or the patient’s family members, becoming friends with a patient can blur the professional lines between doctor and patient, thereby opening a doctor to all kinds of ethical landmines. Dr. Kavali shared her journey into using social media within medicine, "I had an active personal Facebook page, and a lot of my patients were friending me on that page, which created a somewhat awkward situation. It just made sense to create a robust and living page for my practice." It is important for doctors to create professional social media accounts with the goal of keeping your professional life separate from your personal.

Make sure you monitor your social media presence.
Medical organizations have been early adopters with social media. Currently, more than 1,500 healthcare facilities and organizations are actively using social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The Mayo Clinic is one of the forerunners of social media within medicine. In fact, they even created the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media ( and have published a book entitled Bringing the Social Media #Revolution to Health Care (available on Amazon). This effort and outreach by the Mayo Clinic to leverage social media is helping the medical community promote health, fight disease and improve healthcare. Yet even though there are many potential benefits of social media for patient health and information, it becomes likely that the more a doctor or organization increases their use of social media, the more "control" becomes lost. The fact is, you can’t "control" social media, but you can manage it.

Kathy Drake Browning actively uses all forms of social media within her organization and yet she cautions, "While I believe social media is a very useful tool, like all tools, it must be used with care. If physicians or organizations are using social media, have guidelines establish beforehand. Monitor and edit the sites carefully, especially if you allow others to post comments. Only repost from reliable sources and make sure you have permission to link articles."

Realize that everything you put on social media is "forever."
Medical students are now discovering that sobering truth. They are being faced with the fact that their high school or college indiscretions, which they may have chosen to post and brag about on Facebook, are now coming back to haunt them.

According to a study published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, medical school and residency program officials are increasingly taking such social media sites into serious consideration as they determine admissions.

A 2009 survey of 600 medical school admissions officers and residency directors found that only 9 percent of respondents use social media websites to evaluate students as part of the admissions process, yet 53 percent said applicants could jeopardize their chances of being accepted by posting unprofessional information online. Those percentages have most likely only risen since the study was conducted four years ago. It is more important than ever to be cautious and prudent in what you share and post, even though you may consider it purely personal.

Even with all of the challenges and cautions of doctors using social media, I believe its benefits significantly outweigh the real and perceived risks.

How to Create Social Media Success

If you are new to social media, the first step is to start. Yet you may want to wade into the shallow end before simply diving into the deep. At first, social media may not feel natural or make complete sense, but the more you use it, the more familiar and natural it will become. Play with it. Give yourself the freedom to fail and figure it out. Ask questions with those involved in social media.

Decide how you want to use social media.
If you want to use social media as a means of connecting with your colleagues, managing your online reputation or perhaps using it as an online "doctor’s lounge," then I recommend you start using Twitter. Set up an account and even before you start posting, start following others and observing the conversations.

Follow doctors you know or those in your specialty. Observe how they are using it. What kind of content are they posting, and how frequently are they engaged with it? Visit, a database of physicians who tweet, to find doctors using social media and connect with them. So far, more than 1,300 doctors have already registered.

Do you want to start following and listening to conversations surrounding healthcare issues and topics? If so, search within twitter conversations marked with a hashtag. A hashtag is the "#" symbol and is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet. Visit for a complete listing of #hashtags about healthcare-related topics, chats and conferences that you can follow on Twitter.

Perhaps you decide you would rather use social media in order to engage more with your patients and market yourself and your practice more. Then you might want to consider setting up a Facebook page. Having a Facebook page for your practice is something your staff can participate in contributing to and managing. Even though you will be setting up a professional page for your practice, Facebook does require that an individual user of Facebook set it up. Therefore, either you or someone on your staff is going to need to take the first step in setting up your Facebook page.

The next step is to get people connected to it. Using your current communication touch points, encourage your patients to "like" your page and join. Use your Facebook page to post links to relevant medical articles, news and critical information about your practice. You can also add pictures and profiles of your staff. Try posting patient success stories in addition to explanations of procedures and treatment options. Interaction is always important, so you should try interacting with patients through polls and one-on-one conversations through comments and questions. Having a Facebook page will create a personalized online presence and engage your patients.

Keys to Success

Post and contribute content consistently.
The worst thing you can do is to set up a social media account and then go AWOL, not posting anything fresh for weeks on end.

Have a plan.
If you begin using social media, then clarify some basic expectations - ownership (who will contribute and post to your sites), content (what type of content will you post) and frequency (how often will you post - and schedule your posts and content ahead of time using tools such as

Be human.
Dr. Kavali believes that being human is essential to all she does within social media, "I use social media to let people know more about who we are and what we believe. I want people to be able to look at our pages and come away knowing that we are an office for ‘real’ people, that we can sympathize and empathize with them and their needs and that we are compassionate communicators."

Participate in conversation.
Conversation puts the social into social media, so it is important not to simply use social media as a marketing bullhorn but engage with others and share other’s content. "[Social media is] an electronic way of extending the conversation," says Dr. Thomas Lee, an orthopedic surgeon in Westerville, Ohio. "It creates a vibrant sense of community and a wonderful back-and-forth dialogue."

I hope you are encouraged and excited about the opportunities that await you within social media. So what are you waiting for? Don’t worry if you make mistakes along the way, social media is very forgiving - just get in there and give it a try. I look forward to seeing you there in cyberspace.

For more information, please utilize these resources:

American Medical News:

Johns Hopkins Medicine:


Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media:


Bill Reichart, MDiv