How to Use Social Media in Health Care: Q&A with Practicing Physician Kevin Pho

Kevin PhoIn May we launched a new series! Each month we are interviewing a leading expert who will help you prepare for your future career in health care.

For this month’s Q&A we spoke with Kevin Pho, founder and editor of KevinMD.com, a blog that shares stories and insights from those working in the health care field. Kevin is an internal medicine physician who specializes in health care social media. He is also the co-author of the book Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices.

Many of us use social media to connect with our friends and family, and increasingly we are using these same platforms to find and share information related to our health. As patients we are using social media to research reputations of providers, find information about our symptoms and conditions as well as a general source of information of all kinds. As future health care providers, knowing how to do things like promote your facilities’ expertise and increase access to accurate information will be valuable career skills. Read on for Kevin’s best advice for using social media in health care.

How has social media affected those working in the health care field? What are some trends you have noticed in recent years?

Social media has made health care information more transparent. Seven out of ten Internet users now use the web to look for health information, and they regularly come to their provider’s office with information that they printed out, or pulled up from their mobile devices. In some cases, patients may even have more information about their disease than their physician.

The problem, however, is that patients can’t believe everything they read online.  The Internet gives everyone a platform to be heard, but when it comes to health information, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes, what patients are reading online is inaccurate, or even worse, harmful.

So in this transparent era where patients have as much access to information as their providers do, those in health care have to redefine themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as gatekeepers of medical and drug information, they need to become curators of that information. Health care providers need to become filters for their patients and guide them to reliable online sources for health information.

What advice can you give to someone who would like to begin using social media to manage their medical practice’s online reputation? Where should they start?

Almost half of patients today research their doctors online. So I would encourage each provider in a practice to have a social media presence. Chances are, patients will be Googling individual providers rather than the practice itself.

There are powerful social media tools providers can use to establish an online reputation. I’d start with LinkedIn, the professional social networking site. A LinkedIn profile is no more than a digital translation of one’s CV, and can be created in under an hour. If that’s all providers have time for, that’s OK. LinkedIn profiles tend to get ranked high on Google searches. But if providers have time to engage in other social media platforms, that’s even better, since that will expand their online presence and better define them on the web.

What would you say to someone in the health care field who has doubts on investing time in using social media for their practice?

These days, not worrying about an online reputation isn’t an option. Whether providers want one or not, they are already being defined online through physician rating sites. These sites search the web looking for publicly available information about doctors; they will create a profile page whether one is wanted or not. Of course, these sites also allow patients to rate physicians online.

If doctors don’t invest in social media, they risk being defined by rating sites.  And for many, that may not be the online impression they want.

In what ways could social media be used to improve a medical practice’s relationship with its patients?

Social media can make physicians more accessible to patients. Some hospitals arrange Twitter chats where their physicians can answer general medical questions from patients. (Note: These are not personal health questions, since social media isn’t the proper forum for that.) Answering these questions can tear down the health care walls that traditionally divide patient and provider, and better facilitate their connection.

Other practices use Facebook to reach an audience that they otherwise may have trouble reaching. Some OB/GYN practices use Facebook to provide patient education materials on safe sex or birth control to teenagers and young adults who comprise Facebook’s primary demographic.

Are there ways social media can hurt a practice’s online reputation? How should those managing their practice’s online presence respond to negativity?

Just as social media can define reputations online, it can also hurt them. Providers should be as professional online as they are in the exam room face to face with patients. Protecting patient privacy is crucial; whatever is posted online should be appropriate if said aloud in a crowded hospital elevator. And finally, consider online posts to be written in ink. Activity on the web can always be looked up in Google archives, even after posts are deleted.

Practices should respond to negativity (i.e. poor patient reviews) offline. Don’t get into arguments on the web; it’s unlikely to be resolved successfully. Instead, if there’s a dispute, post a standard message asking patients to call the office, where the practice can handle the situation privately, out of social media’s public eye.

 

Come back next month for our interview with J. Matthew Becker, a career and leadership expert!