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How Tweeting and Friending Can Benefit Doctor-Patient Communication

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, April 13, 2010

Should you Facebook friend your doctor? A recent Boston Globe article explores the answer to this question, largely as an ethical information-sharing issue. But patients friending doctors and vice versa is more than a moral dilemma—it's a public relations one.

Seeing as how I'm a millennial and a big proponent of Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, instant messaging, or any other online information-sharing media, you may think I'd be in favor of unchecked doctor-patient friending. Well, you'd be wrong. I don't want to see photos of my doctor's Wednesday night bowling league any more than I want her to see my status updates about how much I'm dreading going to the doctor's. Imagine posting a WebMD link about some affliction you've self-diagnosed yourself with only to have your physician comment to tell you to book an appointment? And what if your doctor writes a status about how much they dislike their job or organization. Some things are just better left unshared.

That's not to say, however, that social media can't be used to further the doctor-patient relationship—so long as there are certain boundaries. Most healthcare marketers agree that social media is beneficial to the marketing department's goals—72% said they viewed social and new media as having positive and slightly positive impact on their organization's marketing function in the next three years, according to the 2010 HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey—and it can be helpful to physicians' personal brands, as well.

Sticking with the Facebook example, doctors who want to connect with patients on the 400 million-strong social networking site can do so in a more professional manner by creating a fan page or a separate professional page. This allows for some interaction without crossing any personal boundaries. Physicians can share health tips, any news about their practice or department, and field general health questions. This allows patients who want to feel more connected with their doctor to keep in touch without stumbling into a social gray area.

A doctor who uses Facebook to his advantage is Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, a Los Angeles-area ophthalmologist. He uses his fan pages to post photos of him and his family, share news releases about his practice, and share unrelated articles that he thinks his fans may find interesting, such as an informational piece about the new iPad. By doing this, he keeps a discourse going with his patients, which helps to keep his practice on their minds. You can bet the next time his Facebook fans have an eye problem they won't say, "Who's my ophthalmologist again?"

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