Making social media simple for docs

By Molly Merrill
02:03 PM

Research has shown that patients are using social media to find health information, and even to make health decisions, which is why experts say doctors have an obligation to use this tool to make sure their patients are getting accurate information.

[See also:Social media sites help patients make healthcare decisions.]

The first thing any healthcare provider who's wary of using social media will probably say is that HIPAA is just too big a risk in this area.

But while HIPAA concerns are real, there is a simple rule of thumb that doctors can follow, says Susan Giurleo, a psychologist, business consultant and marketer for healthcare professionals who want to diversify their income streams and utilize online tools to provide services and market their practices.

“You use the same ethics and confidentiality online that you use in real life,” says Giurleo.

She calls it the “coffee shop test.”

“If you wouldn’t talk about it with a colleague in a coffee shop,” Giurleo says, then it’s not appropriate to talk about it online. And there is never a need to talk about patients, she adds.

Giurleo says the idea that, once a doctor starts using social media they will be flooded with patients trying to connect with them is “unfounded.” 

“I have never heard people say they have had that experience,” she says.

There are some easy ways for doctors to make their entrance into the social media sphere, says John Vaughn, MD, senior manager e-health Initiatives, student health services and clinical assistant professor, department of family medicine at the Ohio State University (pictured at right). Vaughn administers the student health service's blog for the university called BuckMD.

Listen and Observe
One good way to start is to create a Twitter account. It can be really general, says Vaughn. For example, your bio could read, “I am a physician who is interested in social media.” You don’t necessarily have to post any tweets, but you could follow certain hashtags, he says. You can also create your own hashtag for whatever interests you, for example: #medicine.

[See also: Americans not ready to use social media to talk to their doc.]

Giurleo also recommends conducting Twitter searches, just to become acquainted with how the technology is really being used. She says people have such an “abstract” idea about its use that simply observing how people are using it can really open up one's mind to how the medium can be used to convey health information in real-time.

Next steps
If doctors want to take it one step further, Giurleo says, blogging is another way to get “their feet wet.” It’s common for doctors to write articles, and blogging is a natural, online extension of that, she says. Once they become familiar with it, they can start linking their blog to other social media.

Social media sites such as LinkedIn, a social networking tool for professionals, and Sermo, an online physician community, are other online resources that are more geared to the professional world, says Giurleo and Vaughn.

Providers can also create a Facebook page for their practice, says Vaughn. "It’s like an online yellow pages."

It also "creates a personality to you and your practice," he says. "Not only is it a good marketing tool, but it shows your patients that you are meeting them where they are – online."