Dr. Sej Patel, a Beverley Hills-based plastic surgeon, is known for his unabated and occasionally controversial use of social media. With hundreds of thousands of followers eagerly clicking on before-and-after depictions of butt-lifts, breast enhancements, and tummy tucks through mediums like SnapChat and Instagram, Dr. Sej has elevated his profession into the ranks of online notoriety. If you follow him on Snapchat, you might even see a clip of him rapping to music in the operating room and zooming into a newly enhanced butt and shouting ‘KABOOM!’ into the camera.1 This may appear as a far cry from the professionalism and sophistication traditional to medical practice, but times are changing. Across every industry, executives are realizing the potential of social media. Modern doctors can use social media platforms to connect with colleagues, recruit new patients, share medical knowledge and expertise, and promote themselves and their practice through an online persona.
Understandably, there are several reservations about provider usage of social media. The American College of Physicians recommends that doctors maintain a strict divide between their professional and personal personas.2 They strongly advise against ‘friending’ a patient through an online platform or establishing contact through text-messages. Providers violate HIPAA regulations by posting patient information online or identifying a patient – jeopardizing their career and compromising the patient’s privacy. The professional risks are obvious, but that’s not the only reason to be worried. Purists believe that social media can misconstrue medical reality and glamorize procedures (whittling out the real risks involved). Snapchat and Facebook are, in effect, highlight reels that almost exclusively portray positive outcomes. With these concerns in mind, we’ve put together a 3-step guide for providers to leverage social media in an appropriate and useful way – to the overall benefit of their patients and practice.
Beginner Level: Start with Social Media Platforms Specifically for Providers
The most popular social media apps – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram – also pose the most risk. These platforms are not encrypted, leaving them exposed to hacks or third-party leaks. In a survey of nearly 200 providers, 65% were hesitant to immerse themselves more fully in social media and online communication due to worries about public access and legal concerns.3 In a profession that is inundated with malpractice risks and lawsuits, providers are unlikely to expose themselves to that additional burden. Additionally, many doctors are simply unfamiliar with or unlikely to use social media apps. With the exception of Facebook, social media apps are dominated by the 18-29 demographic.4 How many doctors do you know that fall into that age group?
For someone who might be hesitant or naïve when it comes to social media, apps designed specifically for physicians offer a lot of value as a ‘Social Media 101’ of sorts. Doximity is an online network of verified providers with more physician users than Epic, the top EMR in the country. The Doximity platform allows colleagues to connect and discuss patient information, enabled with secure transfer of scans and health records. A provider can get a second opinion on a patient, or refer that patient to a specialist. The curated news feature and comment sections allow providers to stay on top of new developments in their field. Sermo is another platform that connects hundreds of thousands of verified physicians. The application allows users to engage in conversations with an anonymous online handle – offering an extra layer of privacy that may ease the concerns of social media novices. Users can reach out to colleagues for a consult to obtain a diagnosis and/ or advance their medical knowledge. Both Doximity and Sermo have smooth, easy-to-learn, and highly secure platforms that make them excellent starting points for providers seeking to dip their toes in a form of (peer-to-peer) social media.
Intermediate Level: Connect with Patients on Popular Apps
While applications like Doximity and Sermo go a long way in connecting providers with other providers, they are limited in their ability to connect providers with patients. Social media influence is dictated by volume and traffic – where sites like Facebook and Twitter dominate. Disseminating accurate medical information and respecting patient privacy should be priorities of any provider looking to foray into popular social media sites. Dr. Cat Begovic, another Beverley Hills plastic surgeon, often posts surgical before-and after pictures to her 1.1 million Instagram followers. In her posts, she discusses the consultation, surgical process, recovery, precautions, and recommended exercise options. She also notes that “Patients have given consent for filming surgery and sharing on all social media channels for educational purposes.”
In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists became the first committee to encourage providers to decide for themselves whether to connect with patients on Facebook and recognize the new opportunities that social media can present.5 They offer certain low-risk guidelines for providers – communicating only with established patients, maintaining a professional webpage, and adjusting privacy settings – that can facilitate proper use of social media. Instead of ‘friending’ patients through a personal profile, providers can instead create a professional page that patients can then follow. Medical practices (like Kaiser Permanente) have Facebook pages that share health tips, contain patient stories, and provide information for scheduling appointments. Ultimately, providers must be mindful of digital permanence and uphold even stricter ethical standards than they would for in-person interactions.
Advanced Level: Take a Research and Analytics Approach to Social Media
After establishing a strong online presence, provider groups and hospitals can use social media as a tool for research, marketing, and public relations. Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit health care provider, used Facebook and Twitter to grow its positive media mentions close to 500% in the last five years.6 After analyzing patient tweets, they found that conversations about hospital and clinic parking were twice as negative as conversations about the Kaiser brand – which allowed individual clinics to change their parking structures. With social media, we can glean information from patients that would never come up within a clinic’s walls or doctor’s visit. The Mayo Clinic is another example of a group that is using social media to its full potential. Within one month of strategically using social media to promote their site’s podcast, they gained 76,000 followers.7 For provider groups, using social media strategically as a research and marketing tool can help to gain an upper hand in the healthcare industry.
Dr. Sej, our Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon, uses clever hashtags and memes to promote his practice. The playful nature of his social media presence aside, Dr. Sej does take a more serious approach to its overall impact. “You’re literally showing thousands of people what you’re doing… Once you start [the post], you gotta finish it, and it better look good — or you’re gonna look like a jackass. It takes balls to show what your results are.”1 Whether you have one follower or one million, it is critical to represent yourself on social media in an accurate and constructive way.
The proliferation of social media is not stopping. We have already established that Millennials (who grew up with Snapchat and Vine and Instagram) are a different patient segment and do have different expectations for doctors and their health experience than previous generations. Further, the boundaries between professional personas and online personas are blurring. Perhaps taking control of your social media presence is the top option to ensure that doctors put their best self forward.