Social Media for Doctors: How, When, and Why Physicians are Using Social Media

How can you and your practice best utilize social media to reach and educate patients while maintaining professional values in the ever-changing internet landscape? Here’s how 5 spine surgeons utilize social media and how they hope to see it evolve.

social media icons on a mobile phoneFacebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat—social media sites—plus marketing and patient outreach, can be overwhelming.

Social media is becoming exponentially more prevalent in the everyday lives of people around the world—and has been for over ten years. It has transformed from a way for friends to speak casually into an outlet for people to address nearly every need they have—including healthcare. If you haven’t recently checked the Facebook messages sitting in the inbox of your personal account or your practice’s, go check them now—there are likely at least several, if not dozens, of requests from people asking for medical advice, from device companies asking you to take on their products, and from pharmaceutical companies making a cordial introduction.

It can be difficult to navigate the social media landscape, especially for medical professionals who have an obligation to maintain professional values at all times. How can you engage with people needing medical advice online in a way that is helpful without crossing any boundaries? More simply, how much effort should you and your practice put into social media in general? We spoke with several physicians to hear how they utilize social media.

Social Media for Doctors

Baron S. Lonner, MD, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of Scoliosis Associates in New York City, said, “I use social media as a means of communicating information to potential patients who may come to my practice for a consultation and for general information regarding spinal conditions that I treat. My Facebook posts consist largely of brief discussions of specific conditions or treatment options which then link to more detailed content in my website. My team and I also post patient testimonials which provide an effective means of letting patients understand the treatment and its potential outcomes from another patient’s perspective. Occasionally, we highlight research we are working on, recent publications, and presentations at conferences and as a visiting Professor.”

Neel Anand, MD, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Director of Spine Trauma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, maintains a similarly active social media presence. “I regularly use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. My Twitter and Facebook posting pattern is almost daily and I post on LinkedIn when I have an article to share that may be more focused on my industry. I utilize social media exclusively for public education about spine health and much of what I share is in an attempt to educate the public at large and to dispel common myths that proliferate on social media about risk factors, causes of and treatments for back pain and other spine conditions,” Dr. Anand explained.

When it comes to personal accounts, however, many physicians are staying away completely or engaging only infrequently. Dr. Lonner said, “I do not use a personal Facebook account and I do not personally view the likes or comments of those who are posting in response to our posts, although my team does monitor this.”

Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery, Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), and Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Service and Co-Director of the USC Spine Center, on the other hand, does have a personal account, but does not actively post or engage using this account. “So, I am a passive user. I do see more and more academic posts by other spine surgeons, colleagues and friends,” Dr. Wang stated.

One of those orthopaedic spine surgeons sharing academic posts is Dwight S. Tyndall, MD. Dr. Tyndall uses social media accounts under his own name to share his own articles and research.

Richard D. Guyer, MD, Co-founder of Texas Back Institute and Director of their Spine Fellowship Program, shared that he also has personal accounts, but the only professional content he will post on those accounts relays information about fundraisers his practice is organizing.

Evolution of Social Media

Another element to consider when it comes to social media is the constant evolution. Ten years ago, your practice may have posted once a month on Facebook and received noticeable, and positive, engagement. In 2018, however, there are quite a few more factors to consider. What is the best social media platform to post on? How often do you need to post in order to actually reach people? And should you be setting goals for engagement—as in how many people are liking, commenting on, or sharing your posts—or is it enough to simply post?

Several of the doctors SpineUniverse spoke with weighed in that although their practices have had social media accounts for several years, their approaches and rates at which they post have not changed. Dr. Guyer, however, said that as social media became more popular, his practice began to utilize it more and more.

Dr. Anand offered a thorough analysis of the changes he has witnessed. “My Twitter account was established in 2009 and my professional Facebook and LinkedIn accounts were established shortly thereafter—so I have been using social media for about 9 years. Every social platform has become a lot more popular since 2009, and I have observed that social media is one way that patients want to be able to communicate with their doctor or a medical practice. However, I maintain that social media is not intended for specific health conversations related to an individual and encourage patients to reach out directly to our office so that we can help protect their privacy.”

When it comes to platforms beyond Facebook, Dr. Lonner has considered adding a new social media platform to the mix of where he posts. “I have considered posting on Instagram, which appears to be a more current media for younger individuals, in particular, but even among professionals. My understanding of this media is that it requires more frequent posting for it to be effective.”

Social Media Improvements

It can be easy to feel as if you need to chase the trends on social media in order to stay relevant. However, a better social media strategy starts with consideration of what you want to get out of social media paired with what you want to put into it. You may hope to connect with patients or supply potential patients with educational information, or you may prefer to avoid patient interaction completely and instead utilize social media to connect with fellow physicians.

Dr. Wang shared how he would like to see the ways in which medical professionals use social media change: I think [social media] is a way to effectively and more efficiently reach colleagues about meeting announcements, activity announcements, etcetera. I would like to see societies use this more, and perhaps transform their newsletters into this format, so it’s more easily accessed and disseminated.”

Disadvantages of Social Media

While social media has plenty of advantages for connecting patients and doctors with educational information, there is a major disadvantage that each of the doctors with whom we spoke mentioned: dissemination of embellished or incorrect information.

Dr. Anand, however offered a positive outlook when it comes to the spreading of false health information, “Every physician has the ability to dispel that misinformation and the more of us who lend our voices to doing so, the better.”

Updated on: 08/13/18
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