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Employed doctors don't have to lose social media voice

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  —  Posted Dec. 24, 2012.

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Leaving private practice doesn't mean physicians must leave behind the online personas they worked hard to establish through social media channels.

It does mean, however, that what they do online now might be scrutinized by more than the colleagues and potential patients they interact with online. It also could lead to the creation of a strong alliance that will be mutually beneficial to the physician and employer.

Whether a physician is starting an employed position or is already employed and thinking about establishing his or her social media presence, the first step to ensure that tweets don't ruffle any executive feathers is talking to the employer. It could mean speaking with an immediate supervisor and someone in the organization's marketing or public relations departments. Regardless of whether the hospital or health system has a social media presence, chances are good it has policy governing how employees use it. Common, boilerplate policies would include issues such as proper use of social media, how to protect patient privacy, what is considered professional or off-limits, rules about who can speak on behalf of the organization, and rules establishing when and where employees are allowed to access their social media sites while on the clock.

Even though a hospital may not spell it out, physicians should make clear in their social media profiles who they work for, and that the views expressed on the sites belong to the physician, not the employer, said Ian Petty, senior creative adviser for Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, a health care communications and marketing firm based in Nashville, Tenn.

Beyond the “do this, don't do that” aspect of social media policies, hospitals with a well-established social media presence may have policies and information regarding best use that can help physicians, said Frances Dare, managing director of connected health services for the consulting firm Accenture.

In private practice, physicians are left to their own devices to figure out the most effective and safest ways to use social media, she said. But hospital staff charged with developing social media policies probably have studied the various issues extensively and can take the burden off physicians to figure it all out, especially if the physicians are new to social media.

“The policy should be considered a resource, and the people who developed those policies should be considered a resource,” Dare said.

Internists Arash Mostaghimi, MD, and Bradley Crotty, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, wrote an opinion piece in the April 2011 Annals of Internal Medicine encouraging hospitals to develop educational materials and standards for how social media should be used. They said it's often easy for physicians to blur the lines between how the sites are used personally and professionally.

For example, sites such as Facebook and Twitter should never be used to communicate directly with patients, they wrote. But they can be useful for general announcements and information. They also advise physicians to adopt the American Medical Association's recommendation of keeping their professional social media activities separate from their personal activities.

In the absence of policies

Surveys have found that hospitals have been much slower to adopt social media than physicians, so there may be isolated cases in which a hospital has not developed policies and guidance. In some cases, doctors who are savvy about social media and its benefits can use their experience to help persuade their employers to get involved with it and develop strategies regarding its use, experts say.

“Most forward-thinking hospitals will help make doctors ambassadors of the hospital's brand,” said John Edwards, director of health care strategy and health care business intelligence for PwC. “They'll be thrilled to hear they have physician interest.”

Dare agrees that a physician could convince a hospital that a social media presence is advantageous.

“I would encourage the physician to engage in conversation with the leadership so that there is a shared understanding of what the physician wants to do,” she said. These conversations not only will give the physician a chance to find out about policies that may restrict social media use but also will give them a chance to explore strategies for social media partnerships and alliances with the hospital.

Petty said that when physicians are involved in social media, they are not just broadcasting their own ideas, they are listening and gathering ideas from others. The hospital should understand that there are advantages to engaging physicians who may be learning new ideas and information they are bringing back to the organization.

Mutual benefits

When both physicians and hospitals have a strong social media presence, the potential to reach patients will be that much greater, as there will be multiple points of engagement for them, said Michael Pauley, senior director of online strategy and e-communications for the Healthcare Assn. of New York State, a member organization for hospitals in New York.

Physicians and their employers can share in cross-referencing each other's sites, or share in spreading a particular message. But while a joint message can be beneficial, it's important that physicians don't lose their individuality.

A large percentage of patients look to their physicians first, even before hospitals, when it comes to health information, Dare said. Although the hospital can provide physicians with talking points, physicians can deliver them in their own voice and tone. “It will come across as more authentic that way,” she said.

Some physicians may recognize the importance of having a social media presence, but they may not have time to manage and maintain their own. Another advantage to being employed might be the chance to get involved with an employer's efforts.

There are plenty of ways physicians can become engaged in social media through their employers that won't take a lot of time but might make significant impacts: hosting a twitter chat, for example, or writing a guest blog. A splashy way some hospitals may collaborate with physicians is to do live-tweeting of a surgery, Pauley said.

But marketing experts say physicians should seek ways to maintain their presences and manage their messages.

“Every doctor should be involved in this in one way or another,” Petty said. “I think despite being employed, you have to be in control of your own online reputation. And anything the hospital does is extra.”

Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  — 

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External links

“Professionalism in the Digital Age,” Annals of Internal Medicine, April 2011 (link)

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