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Why Physicians Can't Ignore Social Media


Surveys show patients, particularly those in the Millennial generation, are using social media when making healthcare decisions. So how should physicians respond?

Physicians, Practice Management, Social Media, Smartphone

A recent global survey of 3,000 people by Nuance revealed the high regard millennials have for their social networks. According to the survey, 70% of millennials would choose a primary care physician based on family and friend recommendations.

That number jibes with a recent PwC Health Research Institute survey indicating that 90% of respondents between the ages 18 to 24 said they would trust medical information shared by others on their social media networks.

Kelly Faley, vice president of digital marketing for Sharp Healthcare, a San Diego-based not-for-profit integrated regional healthcare delivery system, isn’t surprised by those numbers.

“This isn’t new,” Faley says. “It’s been going on, though, in backyard barbecues, and at the soccer games, and in the grocery store, and at PTA meetings. But now it’s its going on in all of those places, and things are being put online and in social media.”

Physicians can choose to ignore it, or use it to their advantage.

Awareness and Education

Faley says that social media takes the same message friends and family exchanged around those backyard barbecues and amplifies it—proportionately, disproportionately, or exponentially. And to not pay attention to the role that these social media networks are playing is akin to believing that word of mouth is not important.

“We know that study after study for years has said that word of mouth is the most powerful reference for a business, whether it’s healthcare or something else,” she says. “People look to their friends for referrals to physicians.”

Sharp is taking advantage of that. The regional delivery system is using social media to increase awareness and educate current and potential patients about whatever is going on in the news. Faley says that positions Sharp as a valuable and trusted resource. So when it’s time for consumers to make a healthcare choice, the hope is they’ll choose Sharp.

But Sharp also uses social media as part of its strategy around reputation management.

“We’re very active in monitoring feedback, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter or sites like Yelp and RateMDs,” Faley says. “And we’re monitoring for experiences that our patients are reporting about our physicians, as well as our hospitals and other sites. And if somebody has a negative comment, we can respond immediately.”

How to Respond

Faley says it’s just as important for a private practitioner or multi-physician practice to monitor and respond to social media as it is for an integrated regional healthcare delivery system. The key, however, is how physicians in smaller practices respond.

“They need to be very cognizant of how their comments will be perceived and how they respond to negative comments.”

Faley has seen where physicians rightfully feel under attack from negative comments, so they jump into the social media arena to defend themselves. Too often, however, their response ends up inflaming the situation, turning it into something much bigger than it needed to be.

The key is to be proactive, especially where education is concerned. Faley recalls a pediatrician who used Pinterest to post healthy recipes; recipes that would encourage children to eat vegetables.

“She would use her social media presence to do things like that,” Faley says. “And that can be a nice extension of your practice in a way that doesn’t have any real HIPAA concerns.”

Charting the Benefit

Faley believes that monitoring social media, being aware and responding accordingly can have a positive impact on a medical practice’s bottom line. But tracking that is extremely challenging, especially in healthcare, which doesn’t necessarily have the sophisticated analytic tools of a large pharmaceutical or insurance organization. And even larger entities find it challenging to make the connection.

“It’s really hard for any organization to take the name of somebody, on Facebook for example, and then be able to match that against a patient encounter and know that the Mary Smith on Facebook and the Mary Smith who came into the hospital were really the same Mary Smith,” she says.

And social media can’t stand alone. It needs to be part of an integrated communication plan. Just one more tool in your toolbox.

“If you’re going to try to measure the dollar return on doing social media, you’re not going to be able to measure that,” Faley says. “I haven’t seen anybody in healthcare or outside of healthcare effectively do that.”

She likens it to the telephone.

“We’re not going to give up using the telephone because we can’t measure the exact R.O.I. of answering phone calls,” Faley says. “This is just the way the world has gone.”

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