The adoption of social media tools — such as Facebook
— has profoundly altered the communications landscape in all industries, including health care. Television and radio commercials regularly direct consumers to their Facebook page rather than their website. Moreover, companies post contests that encourage consumers to associate themselves with corporate Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
Despite widespread adoption of social media by individuals and businesses, physicians lag behind. In some regards, reticence is appropriate. Privacy concerns are rampant and protections are often lacking or even absent. There are also concerns about providing public advice that may be inappropriately generalized or misunderstood. These concerns notwithstanding, opportunities still abound for physicians and, more specifically, ophthalmologists to benefit from the use of social media.
Social media can provide unique returns to medical specialists, such as ophthalmologists, who are largely based in private practices. Using popular platforms like Twitter keeps a practice current and can create returns on investment by attracting new patients seeking care. A “tweet” can announce the addition of a new staff member, expansion project or LASIK open house, as well as a purchase of new equipment. A Facebook page can also offer potential patients informal introductions to a practice. And despite the benefits, these tools remain — unbelievably — free.
One growing concern of physicians that social media can address is the multitude of unregulated websites meant to act as reservoirs of physician reviews. A practice’s Facebook page can serve as a central depository for testimonials by patients in a controlled environment. This is a major improvement over seeking and expunging biased and potentially unfounded reviews strewn across the Internet, a pursuit reminiscent of a round of “whack-a-mole.”
Social media also empowers physicians to communicate accurate health information and counter patient misconceptions. Incorrect information travels at light speed via the Internet. Many health care groups, from the Academy and the Centers for Disease Control, to hospitals and private practices, use Twitter and other methods of instant communication to offer patients and health care providers clarity on current health concerns and research initiatives.
Physicians can also direct patients toward vetted online resources, such as the Academy’s EyeSmart® public information website (www.geteyesmart. org), so they can build a reliable network when seeking health care advice. The Academy has also developed EyeWiki, an online ophthalmic encyclopedia by and for ophthalmologists, which was initially suggested by the YO Committee. Additionally, sites such as LinkedIn and Sermo can act as a professional platform to network with other health care providers, as well as exchange ideas, voice concerns and even seek new job openings.
Another arena in which social media may prove beneficial is the maintenance of experimental trials and the recruitment of patients for such studies. One example is the Italian study Nascita Ed Infanzia: Gli Effetti Dell’ambiente (NINFEA), an Internet-based epidemiologic investigation of environmental effects on birth and childhood. The study’s Facebook page acts as a communication board for participants. The group has even recruited patients by advertising on the site. And unlike a Web page, posts on a Facebook page can be immediately distributed to all users who “like” the page. At the time this article was written, NINFEA’s page boasted 839 “likes.”
As new communication technologies are introduced to industries, such as health care, that need to protect sensitive information, there will always be debate as to their appropriate use. However, as long as physicians respect patient privacy and follow professional guidelines, the maturation of social media will bring increasing benefits to physicians and patients alike for the foreseeable future.
One way to learn more about this topic is to attend specialized Academy sessions at the upcoming Joint Meeting in Chicago, Nov. 10 to 13. Be sure to check out “Use Blogging and Social Networking to Super Charge Your Web Site and Internet Marketing” on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 1 to 4 p.m. Led by guest presenter Randall Wong, MD, this course will provide a hands-on, step-by-step demonstration of how to launch a blog, plus provide publishing tips for using the power of search engines to attract people to your practice, website or business. For more information on the session, use the Academy’s Joint Meeting Program Search).
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About the author: James Chelnis, MD, is a resident at the University at Buffalo and a member of the YO Info editorial board.