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Reimbursement and Practice Management

Social Media to Reach Patients

Effective marketing starts with setting objectives and devising a strategy to reach those goals. Before diving into social media, ask yourself: What’s in this for the physician, the practice and the patients?

After reading this article you will know how to:

  • List effective uses of social media to reach patients
  • Identify challenges to reaching patients with social media
  • Describe sources of inspiration for social media content

View related pearls

Buying woodworking tools obviously won't turn you into a skilled carpenter overnight. In the same way, setting up accounts on LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media to market your practice won't transform you into a marketing expert. Fortunately, the learning curve for social media isn't steep. Other physicians are using it successfully.

Here are some points to consider if you are looking to leverage the public's interest in online socializing into a powerful marketing tool for your practice:

Set Goals. Effective marketing starts with setting objectives and devising a strategy to reach those goals. Before diving into social media, ask yourself: what's in this for me, my practice and my patients? Are you trying to increase patient volume? Do you want to recruit more qualified employees? Does your practice need more visibility in the community? Or are you looking for an affordable avenue to tell current and potential new patients about a new service you offer?

Social networking is ideal for reaching these goals. Not only can a Facebook page get your name out to more people, it can help you develop an image as a teacher, employer, provider of care or all of the above. If your practice already has a marketing plan, see where social media might fit.

Invest Time. Composing an effective tweet or post takes far less time than writing an article or preparing a presentation to a group of referring physicians. But don't think that it is a simple as quickly typing a few words in between grabbing breakfast and darting out the door in the morning. Successful social media requires hands-on work and advance thought to make interesting comments, keep up with electronic "conversations" on current topics, and respond appropriately — and know when not to respond — to other postings.

Unfortunately, one of the hazards of social media is how it can suck up your time. As a practicing physician, time is your greatest asset. Every hour you spent on social media (and it's not difficult to spend an hour!) is time you're not billing CPT® codes or doing other practice-related work. Time creep is the greatest downside of social media to physicians, so set limits early before you find it out of control.

Express Your "Voice." It may take time but as you begin posting your tweets, blogs, etc., work to develop a consistent tone and content. Your long-term goal is to establish an online personality and "voice" that patients and other readers will keep coming back to. Think of Kevin Pho, a physician who parleyed early interest in blogging into a full-time business through his website. You may not have ambitions of leveraging social medial presence into a second career.

Explore Ideas. The social networking sites of other physicians in your specialty, and blogs by health care marketing industry experts and physicians can be a good source of ideas that you can grab ahold of and develop for your own. Many hospitals have established an active social networking presence, so look to help for tips.

Some physicians turn to one of the many vendors and consultants who specialize in social network marketing to get their projects off the ground. Be careful though. If you completely outsource this job then you are handing the keys to your public image over to someone else, so do so cautiously. If you want the results to be a true reflection of you and your values, then plan to take an active role in reviewing all postings before they go live.

Pause Pre-Tweet. We've all heard about the celebrity, politician, or sport star that posts a comment they quickly regret. Unfortunately, there is no "erase" key for the Web. Once that comment you is in the "twitter-sphere" or elsewhere on the Web, you can ever take it back.

Give it Time. Your YouTube video isn't going "viral" but that's OK. You are trying to reach current and prospective patients, not the world. It will take weeks – maybe months – to become established. Launch your initiative by promoting it on your website, on patient handouts and with signs in the office and in exam rooms. Turn to "old" media by including a mailer – announcing "Look for us on Facebook" and "We're on Twitter" – with patient statements. Consider sending a letter to your referring physicians and hospital.

Use Policies. Avoid legal and ethical jeopardy by establishing a policy on who in your practice can post to your social networking sites. In addition to defining broadly what you consider appropriate (and inappropriate) to post, your policy should also outline the steps to follow when dealing with negative comments about you. The American Medical Association offers guidance regarding social networking and social media use. The Mayo Clinic's Center for Social Media also offers helpful resources.

Consider Opportunities. Instead of just using social media to post content and respond to current events – develop messages and content that can actually help your patients. It'll help you, too. Research shows that patients forget a significant amount of information that you provide to them during the visit. This phenomenon produces an under-informed patient and may lead to additional phones call to ask questions, or request more information.

For post-operative care, for example, post a video of you describing the care. The patient would have already heard it from you or your nurse when he or she was in the office, but online access to a video allows the patient to listen over and over again. Furthermore, the video can be shared with the patient's caregiver(s).

Physician Social Media Survey. A recent survey by the MedData Group found that while 29 percent of physicians were involved in social media to connect with other physicians, only three percent were involved in patient communities. The fact is that more Americans are searching online for information about health care topics, medicines, treatment, and physicians. Online social networking offers these consumers more ways to interact with their own health care providers, too.

If you don't want to get left out, start using the social networking tools with which you feel most comfortable. Done correctly, the results will include better-informed and more loyal patients. Start by using the social networking tools with which you feel most comfortable.

Done correctly, the results will include better-informed and more loyal patients.


Pearl: Access the Positive

Increasingly, patients are seeking care on a more immediate basis.  They don't want to wait weeks – or even months – for an appointment. Use social media to promote your access. Tweet about same-day availability – encourage patients to call or include a link to schedule online.

Pearl: Web-U-Tation

People have traditionally located physicians through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family. Now, those endorsements — criticisms, too — are online and, once posted, can follow you around for years. Do "Google" yourself periodically. If you find negative reviews posted about you, don't despair. Frustrated patients are more apt to take their anger out online, while happy patients rarely do.

Take control of your online reputation; when patients mention how satisfied they are with you and your practice, ask patients to post the positive comments online. Encourage patients to make comments. You might have a computer available with the online review sites bookmarked – or give patients instructions on how to post a review.

Pearl: Inside the Lines

Ensure that your private life is removed from your professional pursuits on social media. It's likely that you have a Facebook account to keep up with friends and family; if you post photos about your travels, kids, activities, political beliefs, etc., consider maintaining that account for your private use, while focusing your professional endeavors on a Facebook business page.

Encourage patients to "friend" you on your business page, as "friends" are privy to everything you post – as well as friends who may post photos, comments and messages under your name. For better or worse, you can't control everything that is said about you. Unless the patient is also a dear friend, it's best to keep your personal life personal.

Pearl: Be Original

Come up with original content to post.  It is easy to plagiarize online content today – a "copy and paste" can literally take seconds. It's better to avoid using social media altogether, than use someone else's content without getting the necessary permission and giving credit where credit is due.

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