The median American uses three of the eight major social media platforms, the Pew Research Center reports. Globally, the number of social media users in 2018 is 3.2 billion, up 13 percent year-on-year, according to Global Digital Report 2018. The continued mushrooming of social media's potential influence indicated by these numbers points to an important reality regarding social media for clinicians, Majorie Stiegler, MD, of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said at a recent conference: Whether your interest is increasing patient health literacy, discussing research and ideas with peers, raising awareness of a treatment or technique, cultivating your professional profile, finding a match for your residency program or recruiting people to your group or institution, "You should be out there. You can either lead in this area, or you can be left behind, and you'll be left behind quickly."
Dr. Stiegler contended that physicians have an "ethical imperative" to provide clear, accurate health information on digital platforms—"online, where patients are"—to counterbalance the misinformation from nonprofessional and often questionable sources. She showed the results of a Google search regarding labor epidurals as an example of how physicians are needed to help dispel misunderstandings and enlighten patients regarding health and medicine. The first page of search results included articles containing inaccuracies about epidurals, while articles by reputable sources didn't appear until page two.
Dr. Stiegler said physicians "can't opt out. You already are online. It just may not be in the way you like." Using techniques of sound digital strategy, clinicians can control, amplify and use their online presence to nurture their ability to pursue their interests and goals.
She offered the following advice:
- Before taking any deliberate action to build your online presence, start by asking: What are your goals? What are you known for today and what would you like to be known for? Do you care more about what people find about you or do you care more about being found? These two distinct strategies require different approaches. If you're new to social media, choose only one to start with.
- Define your long-tail keywords—the words that best describe you, the words people type into the search bar when they are researching a topic and that you want them to use to find you. Use the phrases your target audience uses. These will differ depending on whether you're trying to reach patients or peers.
- To build your "professional brand"—who you are, who you help and the problems you solve—put your keywords onto platforms where people will see them. Write one or two articles pertaining to your topic(s), e.g., labor epidurals, and post them on a blog or LinkedIn. Use your keywords deliberately, liberally and naturally.
- Choose platforms that attract your intended audience. If you're trying to reach patients with medical education, Facebook or a personal website offers a more appropriate platform than LinkedIn. As a corollary, make sure what you're doing is searchable and public so that Google can find it. Google will give your information to patients who, if they like what they read, will spend time on your page and boost the article's likelihood of Google offering it again.
- Consider the ways in which platforms differ in their ability to share links, video, images, hashtags, groups, events and discussions. For example, hashtags work well on Twitter. Include links in your articles to other articles and websites, including your own. Links increase the likelihood that someone will look at your post, and linking to your website increases your website's visibility. Platforms love video, so if you're willing, give video a try, but don't push it if it's not your inclination.
- If you do nothing else, write your bio using your keywords and areas of expertise, and post it on your institution's or group's website, LinkedIn and Doximity, an online professional network for verified U.S. physicians—three platforms that rank highly on their own. "You can do this today and never do anything again and you would have made progress toward enhancing your digital footprint," said Dr. Stiegler.
- Protect yourself by knowing and complying with state and federal laws regarding patient privacy and conflict of interest and disclosure laws. Even if you're in a private group, be cautious about sharing any potentially revealing information about a patient. In addition, if you consult with or receive fees from a company, you must disclose it.
- If you communicate with patients and consumers, be clear that you are giving education and not medical advice, and advise them to talk to their healthcare professional. This is a critical disclaimer because you may have established a duty to care relationship if you respond to an individual's question and may have some liability. Laws in these matters vary by state.
- Remember that nothing is private. Many online groups and sites are classified as private, but that doesn't stop a group member from taking a screenshot of whatever you've written and sharing it. "Think under the principal of think twice and tweet once, because everything is basically permanent," Dr. Stiegler said.
In our view, social media can be a useful practice and business management tool, but we advise consulting with your attorney before and during the development and implementation of any social media or digital program or campaign.