For a long time, our practice limited its involvement in the digital world to a website.
It provided static, one-way information with no room for interaction. But the question arose: if we post an update on our website, how do we get our patients to read it and respond to it? After all, if the results of a recent Australian survey are correct, only seventeen per cent of my patients read the printed health brochures displayed in our waiting room, while a staggering eighty-five per cent of my clients look for information online (1).
So we decided to move with the times and do what our patients had been doing for a long time: we signed up for Facebook and Twitter, and started posting health updates about all sorts of health related topics that are usually discussed behind the closed door of the consulting room – like the benefits of travel vaccinations.
‘Doctor Google’ enjoys and enormous popularity and patients are increasingly using social media to find and share health related information. Sadly, not all of that online information is accurate, and some is downright misleading. Providing accurate information through social media platforms is the only way to respond to unscientific online health messages. However, as it turns out only one in ten Australian health professionals use social media as a way of delivering health care (2).
Currently, our Facebook page has 1,450 friends. And, although the number of followers is not a reliable indicator of success, the ‘likes’ on our posts seem to indicate that the message is now at least received at the other end – something we never knew before.
Over time people have posted all sorts of feedback on our Facebook page and although it is mostly positive, there are also some grumbles. The number one complaint is the waiting time for the doctor. Public complaints may seem threatening at first, but they can be turned into something positive and strengthen the relationship with patients. We try to respond promptly, be open and explain why we do what we do.
On one occasion, we also participated in a discussion about the lack of bulk-billing in our town with lots of heated posts by disgruntled people. The Facebook conversation was picked up by a journalist and made headlines in our local newspaper, which gave us a unique opportunity to outline the consequences of bulk-billing on quality of care in general practice.
Facebook has given our practice valuable real-time information about how people perceive our services, it acts as a forum to interact with clients, and it is an effective way to broadcast health promotion messages. Facebook also proved to be useful to promote new services, for example when we opened a satellite practice, started our after hours GP service, travel vaccination clinic and online appointment service. On the downside I’ve found that Facebook is not ideal to communicate with other health professionals and I tend to use Twitter and LinkedIn for this purpose.
Common sense rules
When posting updates we follow some common sense rules: We don’t discuss or disclose personal information and maintain separate professional and personal profiles. I try to post a link with every status update so people can track the source of the information if they want. We have a disclaimer, reminding our followers that the information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship with a health professional.
And although we post under our practice name, in our profile we make it clear who in our practice is responsible for the updates, in order to provide transparency and not to hide behind the name of our practice. I also recommend to un-tick a few dodgy boxes in Facebook’s privacy settings, and I have found that every time Facebook comes out with an upgrade I need to adjust these settings – for example to avoid third party and social ads related to our practice name.
Much is said about the dangers of social media, but not much about the benefits. For that reason I was pleased to read in the Lancet recently that health professionals “can use social media to drive awareness, to provide accurate information, and as a portal to communicate with other physicians” (3). I am sure that in the years to come we will see a lot of developments in this space.
This blog post has been published in Australian Doctor Magazine on 13.07.12.
1. Preliminary data from survey (5000 Australians) for the National Health Call Centre Network, 2012.
2. Australian health professionals’ social media (Web 2.0) adoption trends: early 21st century health care delivery and practice promotion. Usher WT. Australian Journal of Primary Health 2011; 18(1) 31-41
3. Social media: how doctors can contribute. The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9826, Page 1562, 28 April 2012.
Originally posted by Dr Edwin Kruys at Doctor’s Bag