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Physicians Leveraging Social Media to Educate Patients

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   May 03, 2012

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Healthcare Marketing Advisor.

Many physicians are still hesitant about using social media in their professional lives. Concerns range from time commitment, liability, patient privacy, and unfamiliarity with the technology, to the appropriateness of social media interactions in a professional setting.

According to a study by QuantiaMD, 87% of physicians use at least one social media site for personal use, but only 67% use at least one social ­media site professionally. Of those physicians who use social media professionally, the plurality (28%) are participating in physician communities.

When it comes to sites that ­encourage patient-physician interaction, the percentage of physicians on those sites drops significantly. For example, only 15% of physicians are on Facebook professionally, 8% use YouTube, 8% read blogs, 3% use Twitter, and 3% are involved in patient communities.

But physicians should know that social media sites are not just a healthcare marketing or recruitment tool. They can also help educate and engage patients—and physicians play a vital role in those conversations.

Debunking myths
Time commitment is one of the most cited reasons that physicians give as to why they don't use social ­media ­professionally. "I don't have time for extra work" is a ­common complaint. However, social media should not be viewed as extra work, argues Farris K. Timimi, MD, a cardiologist and the medical director for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. 

"If you study Internet use, people spend one in five minutes a day on social media platforms," says Timimi. "This is truly where our patients are, so our obligation is to make sure [patients] have accurate content available to help them make appropriate healthcare decisions. … Our obligation is also making sure we are part of those conversations. We have value to add to that conversation."

Another concern is risk. But when it comes to social ­media, physicians can't be so risk-averse that they don't ­engage.

"It's really important that physicians understand that if they don't take part in that conversation, that someone else's comments on Yelp or Angie's Listbecomes the new reality of how they are viewed online," says Timimi.

Dana Lewis, interactive marketing specialist at Swedish Medical Center, says another misperception is that physicians feel like they have to participate in all types of social media or that they should know everything. "One social media site doesn't work for everybody—some physicians like Facebook, others hate it. Some like to blog or make videos, but they feel like they have to do it all," she says.

Part of Lewis' job is to show physicians different ways to be involved in social media, whether it's a video, blog post, or finding content that Swedish can use. It's intimidating for physicians to get started if they think they have to be a super doc Tweeter or blogger like KevinMD, says Lewis. 

Educating docs
Both Seattle-based Swedish Medical Center and ­Rochester-based Mayo Clinic have social media resources for ­physicians on their websites, and the organizations help train docs on using the technology.

Mayo Clinic has a blog page on its website, which also links to its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels. In addition, it has a Center for Social Media microsite  that includes information about its six social media summits, which are day-and-half-long intensive boot camps that shows providers and administrators how to use these tools effectively in clinical practice. 

Swedish Hospital also has a blog , and it educates its physician groups through boot camps, and Lewis holds "lunch and learns" on a regular basis where staff can ask her questions. In addition, Swedish has created a one-page guide on "10 things to keep in mind when you visit social media sites" that it distributes to staff members on a regular basis.

Swedish's social media strategy is "not relying on people to come to us, but being where they are—whether that is Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube," says Lewis. "Because of that strategy, it makes sense to tap into the amazing experts of our system—the doctors, nurses, and researchers—and thinking how can we get content from them and get it online."

Lewis also educates physicians on how patients are using these platforms to find information.

Even if physicians don't get on social media themselves, they should be willing to recommend social media sites and information to patients, she says. Physicians should be providing a starting point online for patients, because the first things that come up in a Web search may not be that helpful or accurate.

Lewis says ­physicians should direct patients to a couple of websites, social sites, message boards, and factual sites. "It would take a little time up front for physicians, but would pay off ­manyfold for all of their patients in those disease areas," she says.

Making social media easy to use 
Swedish has developed user-friendly processes to help its physicians get involved with social media, says Lewis. Currently, the health system has hundreds of physicians on social media—in part thanks to its huge video series. But it also has physicians producing pod­casts and contributing content on Facebook and Twitter, and a couple of dozen docs who blogged this past year.

One of the nice features of Swedish's blog is that it's still on the main website and is tied to the physician profile system, says Lewis. The benefit of that structure, Lewis explains, is if a physician wants to blog 80 times, they can, but for the doctor who wants to blog once, that is fine too because there is not one person holding up the blog.

"It takes off a lot of pressure, because they can blog once and it can go on their profile and then we can put it on the main blog and get attention that way and it shows well in search," she says, adding that it's also important to show physicians that a blog post can be as simple as one to two paragraphs and a link or a video recorded from a smartphone. 

Figuring out what physicians' interests are, what they are trying to achieve, and whether they have specific goals or are just exploring the platforms is essential to help­ing them use social media effectively, says Lewis. "Some [physicians] are very interested in the mechanics of social media—they want to know how to create a Twitter account and Tweet. Then other ones may just want to do a blog post, but even then there is a range—do they just want to email me a Word doc or upload it themselves?"

Reaping the benefits
In general, being on social media has helped Swedish ­improve its brand awareness and community engagement, says Lewis. "We also have examples of ­bringing patients to the door through live stream and blogging."

Timimi says that the recognition that can occur from a one-hour Twitter chat can create downstream referrals and recognition as well. But to secure physician involvement, you have to answer the question, "How is it going to help me?"

Lewis says you can show doctors examples of how ­another physician who has been blogging answered a question and now has a new patient paying for an out-of-pocket surgery. Or take a screenshot of their search results (from a neutral computer) before they start blogging and then after they blog so they can see how the search results improved.

In addition, repetitive clinical practices that have value to consumers can really be leveraged online, says Timimi. If you are a pediatrician, you probably talk with a lot of patients about picking a bike helmet for a toddler. It's a common conversation, he says.

But rather than spending eight minutes talking with each patient, you could create and direct patients to a YouTube video that summarizes the helmet selection process online. "It is not just you and that family in the exam room, it can now be accessed by anyone," Timimi explains.

Aside from patients, social media can also increase physician referrals, says Lewis. Just like patients who see a physician blogging online and decide to seek them out, physicians may choose to send patients to a specialist they see ­responding to patients and sharing information online through social media.

The great thing about social media is it has a short half-life, so organizations and physicians can try things and see what works, Lewis says. That short half-life also means, however, that if you do something great, it will go by really quickly unless you package your efforts.
"If you do a really great campaign or have really great videos, don't let them die a slow death on your YouTube channel. Bring them back out on a regular basis on a blog, Facebook page, or show them on the monitors at your ­hospital," says Lewis.

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Healthcare Marketing Advisor.


Carrie Vaughan is a senior editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

Follow Carrie Vaughan on Twitter.

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