6 expert insights on how physicians can engage patients through social media

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Consumers live with the expectation that they can have their voices heard via social media for a variety of products they need and want. But should this extend to medicine and healthcare? Does it already?

"As nearly 70 percent of all patients go to the Internet either before or after a doctor's visit, doctors need to set themselves apart from other physicians or other healthcare groups, possibly by using social media," Kevin Campbell, MD, an internationally-recognized cardiologist and author, told Forbes in an interview.

Medicine is and should still be focused on caring for patients, Dr. Campbell said in the interview, but now that the consumerism element is at play in healthcare, it might be time for the quality focus to broaden to the social media presence of practices or organizations.

Here are six insights about physician use of social media from Dr. Campell's interview with Forbes.

• Physicians can leverage social media to share what is unique about the services offered through their practice or group. They can include information about success rates and outcomes for procedures or information about specific services, such as accreditation or guidelines they use. The philanthropic activities and community outreach a hospital or organization takes part in is also viable to share on social media.

• For specialists, such as anesthesiologists, who generally have limited interactions with patients, patient outreach through web-content can be a helpful avenue for engagement. Creating a series of YouTube videos or blog posts to get the necessary information out to patients can help to decrease anxiety and get patients more involved in their own care. Patients who are less stressed or anxious have better surgical outcomes.

• Managing the cyber-reputation of a practice or hospital is key, otherwise it can take on a life of its own. Make sure you have a team who is aware of what your organization is putting online and what is being said about the services you offer. This will help improve the perceptions of prospective patients.

• If your practice or organization allows for it, move your patient relationships to social media or email, to the degree the patient is comfortable. There are risks and incentives to using email to connect with patients, so if you choose to do so, you have to be sure the emails are monitored and responded to within a certain amount of time. While physicians should never give medical advice through social media, physicians can respond to messages or tweets by providing the proper channels for patients to get the answers they need.

• Before starting to use social media or electronic communications for patient engagement, medical professionals must have a complete understanding about the legal boundaries involved. Another thing to keep in mind is exactly what the goals are of using social media, such as patient education or gaining market share or referrals.

• Though the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards recently released a "common sense" guidance for physicians using social media, there are essentially no regulatory limitations on how physicians should use social media right now. Obvious forms of misconduct would be sharing patient information, saying anything slanderous or using any information that could be linked back to a specific patient online.

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