Marketing a Medical Practice Online Today Requires Social Media Engagement
Practice Management Feature — December 2015
Tex Med. 2015;111(12):33-38.
By Joey Berlin
The brief but evolving history of social media has already given physicians some valuable lessons on how they should and shouldn't use it to generate more exposure for their practice and image.
One good rule of thumb involves generating and circulating content that has real meaning to patients, referring physicians, or whatever audience you're trying to reach. Steer clear of posting x-rays of gunshot victims online and joking about it. A Kansas physician actually did just that prior to losing a U.S. Senate primary election in 2014.
Beyond those do's and don'ts, doctors have a lot more to think about when building a modern online presence for their practice. The explosion of social media and the expectations of frequently refreshed content have changed the rules for physicians and practices looking to market themselves and bolster their online reputation. Just as static websites have become a relatively archaic part of the online equation, the marketing expectations for physician and practice websites have changed substantially.
"The doctors who want to avoid social media should know it's here, and the majority of physicians will be using it," said emergency physician Carrie de Moor, MD, a member of the Texas Medical Association Council on Practice Management Services. "So they're going to lose out on that market share if they're not promoting their business in that venue. It's going to [look like] you're not up to date."
The Woodlands pediatric gastroenterologist Bryan Vartabedian, MD, says physicians shouldn't resist having a public presence through digital channels like social media. Dr. Vartabedian is the author of the e-book The Public Physician: Practical Wisdom for Life in a Connected, Always-On World. (Get a free download of the book.)
Dr. Vartabedian says the perception was that physicians who wanted to avoid Facebook or Twitter could "hide beneath their exam room table, and things would just pass them by."
"If people search for you and they can't find anything meaningful or anything good, it's potentially a liability," he said. "I think the market forces are such that for doctors to be competitive, they have to have some presence in public."
TMA's book Get Social: Put Your Practice on the Social Media Map says any physicians building a social media presence need to start by developing their content strategy. That starts with figuring out what audience you want to reach — prospective patients, referring colleagues, or the news media — then considering what you know about that audience.
Get Social is one of the publications TMA offers that helps physicians improve their business acumen with new marketing tools.
Business Basics for Physicians informs physicians about accounting and financial management basics, long- and short-term business planning, marketing fundamentals, and more.
Dr. Vartabedian says the best way for physicians to market themselves or their practices is to create enduring content that has value to the target audience. That can be as simple as creating and posting a two-minute video or a 300-word blog post on a subject that is helpful for the targeted viewers or readers. Local hospital blogs are often the best outlet for that kind of content, he says.
"Hospitals are always desperate for content for their blogs," Dr. Vartabedian said. "So if you can write an expert position on some health [issue], people are going to read that, and they're going to want to come and see you."
While physicians can reach new patients with Facebook and Twitter, Dr. Vartabedian says doctors can help themselves greatly by setting up profiles on the professional social media network LinkedIn, or Doximity, an online social network specifically for doctors.
Facebook and Twitter are useful for doctors to promote content. For Facebook, Get Social advises, "Look for news articles or blog posts that match the topics in which you want to establish your expertise. Add a comment with your own thoughts on links to the latest research findings your patients might care about. Share worthwhile posts you find on others' Facebook pages. Announce an upcoming special event or patient education activity that your practice is hosting, like a flu shot clinic or prenatal class."
But Get Social also warns physicians to moderate the self-promotion that appears on their feeds, advising, "Share content your target audience will find valuable in its own right far more frequently than the 'hey, look at me' posts."
Dr. de Moor, chief executive officer of The ER at Craig Ranch in McKinney, says physicians don't have to shell out huge amounts of money to meet expectations for what a medical practice website should look like.
"It doesn't have to be a million-dollar website," she said. "It just needs to be a little bit more functional [so it's] something that doesn't look like it came out of 1992. It needs to look clean, professional, have some information that you think patients are going to want to know."
In September, TMA's Council on Practice Management Services voted to approve a new endorsed vendor, Officite, to assist physicians with website design, social networking, and more. (See "Marketing Help Is Here.")
Kevin Rach, Officite's marketing communications manager, says the company stresses four basic must-have ingredients for every medical practice's website:
- It should showcase the most basic information about the practice, such as the names of the physicians, the practice's address and phone number, and ways in which someone can schedule an appointment.
- It should work on any device. A report by Internet research company comScore showed between February 2013 and May 2014, users spent 60 percent of their digital media time on smartphones and tablets.
- It should be customized — for example, it should display photos of the actual practice setting and staff, rather than placeholder images. "People can smell stock photos from a mile away, and they don't like them," Mr. Rach said. "They want to see you, they want to see the care that they will be getting."
- It should look attractive. "You don't need to be a website fashionista by any stretch of the imagination," Mr. Rach said. But, make sure your site ditches the primitive staples of the early years of the Internet, such as scrolling marquees and website hit counters.
"If you look outdated on the website, then that suspicion tends to creep in about the rest of the practice," Mr. Rach said. "That assumption isn't usually true, but it's the kind of connection that consumers often make."
The ER at Craig Ranch website features physician photos, detailed biographies, and a link for patient payments.
"We're in emergency medicine, so people don't have a whole lot of time [to research us]," Dr. de Moor said. "But we're hoping that people get to know us a little bit better than they would a typical ER doctor. We do have people that come in and say, 'Oh, I've seen you.' They actually get to know the person who's treating them and learn a little bit more about us."
Mr. Rach says staff pages on medical practice websites should strike a balance between the personal and the professional.
"You definitely want credentials, such as education information, but there also needs to be a little bit of [the] personal," he said. "Patients need to feel like they're getting to know the doctor a little bit. It makes it easier for them to see you as something more than a list of degrees that they don't fully understand."
Patient portals on a practice website can offer online bill pay and other features, such as access to test results. Mr. Rach says not all practices have to have patient portals on their websites. Practices with an older, less technologically savvy patient base may not need one, for instance. Physicians who are participating in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services meaningful use program must have a patient portal as part of their patient-engagement measures. For questions about patient portals and other information related to health information technology (HIT), contact TMA's HIT Helpline at (800) 880-5720 or by email.
Building an effective website hinges on identifying the target audience, says Don McKenzie, Officite's director of business development.
"Your primary audience will be new and existing patients," he said. "But great website messaging speaks to all your audiences, including referring physicians, spouses, staff, Google, etc. Perhaps consider addressing your charitable organizations and community outreach on site. Figure out all of your audiences and then work backward to create a winning website experience for your website visitors."
What Not to Do
The Public Physician says two things define a doctor's public presence: conversations and content. While "conversations are great," Dr. Vartabedian says, "content is better."
Get Social encourages physicians to join ongoing Twitter discussions to express agreement or disagreement or to provide information that can add to the discussion, for example.
"Be wary, though," the book warns. "Far too many tweeters are hypersensitive to anyone who disagrees with them, especially on controversial topics (and that can be anything from politics to college football). You'll rarely win an argument on Twitter."
Complaining about patients online is forbidden, and even mentioning anything about a patient in an online post is risky. In 2010, Westerly Hospital in Rhode Island fired Alexandra Thran, MD, after she posted a comment online about an emergency department patient, according to a report in The Boston Globe. Although Dr. Thran didn't mention the patient by name, the Globe reported, the state medical board filing said her post contained enough identifying information that others in the community could figure out the patient's identity. The board reprimanded Dr. Thran and fined her $500.
St. Louis obstetrician-gynecologist Amy Dunbar, MD, drew calls for her firing from St. John's Mercy Medical Center in early 2013 after she vented on Facebook about an unnamed mother-to-be who Dr. Dunbar said was three hours late for her induction. Dr. Dunbar ended her post by asking Facebook readers, "May I show up late to her delivery?" She later added a comment that she was tolerating the patient's lateness because the patient had a "prior stillbirth."
Dr. Dunbar's posts generated anger from other social media users, some of whom argued her disclosure of a previous failed pregnancy violated patient privacy. St. John's Mercy condemned her comments as "definitely inappropriate," according to reports, but later released a statement saying it had confirmed she hadn't violated privacy laws.
Kansas radiologist Milton Wolf, MD, a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014, got busted by The Topeka Capital-Journal for previously posting x-ray images of gunshot victims on his Facebook page, "along with jokes about the deceased." Dr. Wolf later apologized for the posts but lost in the primary to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
Last August, Dr. Wolf claimed on his former campaign website that the state Board of Healing Arts had ended an investigation into the posts "without any findings of wrongdoing." Confidentiality prevented the ethics board from confirming to the Capital-Journal whether it had exonerated Dr. Wolf, according to a story the paper published later that month.
Online reviews of physicians or practices on sites like Yelp or Health Grades may tempt some physicians into negative online engagement. But Mr. Rach says one of the biggest mistakes physicians can make is to discount those reviews. BrightLocal's 2015 Local Consumer Review survey showed as many as 80 percent of respondents trust an online review as much as a personal recommendation.
"It can be easy for a doctor, especially an experienced one, to dismiss reviews they don't agree with. They may see an ill-informed review and say something like 'This isn't the full story' or 'This person doesn't understand the situation,' or 'This is unfair and nobody should listen to this.'" Mr. Rach said. "To an extent, obviously, that's true, but that's not the way it's perceived in patients' minds."
Instead of discounting a scathing online review, he says, physicians should respond and do so apologetically. And Get Social notes it's a good idea for physicians to encourage satisfied patients to post positive reviews online.
"If there is some kind of perceived grievance, no matter how vitriolic the comments get, no matter how viciously they come after you — respond. Respond courteously, and whatever you do, don't retaliate," he said. "Say something like, 'I'm sorry you feel this way; we're doing everything we can to make [your] experience better.' And then say something specific, like 'If you like, we'd love to try and make this right. Here's our number; please call us. We'll do whatever we can.'"
Physicians also have to be aware of Texas Medical Board restrictions on advertising their practices. (See "TMB's Advertising Rules.")
Why should physicians be so mindful of how they craft their online image?
"It's important for them to understand that there is a conversation happening about them out in the infosphere," Dr. Vartabedian said. "And you can either let somebody else create your story for you, or you can do it yourself."
The days of maintaining an effective online presence simply with a practice website are over. Dr. Vartabedian says he didn't focus on practice websites in The Public Physician because "they've kind of gone the way of the dinosaur."
Get Social says a well-built Facebook page "can substitute for a practice website." Social media, content generation, reputation monitoring, and other components are now a crucial part of the equation.
"People are using the words Internet presence or web presence, but it's more than just a website now," Mr. Rach said. "If you leave a website out there on its own, you're not really going to get the results you want to see from it. It needs to be a unified effort, and if you don't have the time available to coordinate that kind of thing, then you should look into investing in the well-being of your practice by finding people who do."
Joey Berlin can be reached by phone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1393, or (512) 370-1393; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email.
TMB's Advertising Rules
State law and Texas Medical Board (TMB) rules restrict the way physicians can advertise their practices. TMB can discipline physicians for inappropriate advertising with license revocation, criminal penalties, and civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.
The statutes and rules prohibit all false, misleading, or deceptive advertising. TMB's rules contain 18 criteria for advertising that fits that description. Examples of advertising TMB would deem false, misleading, or deceptive, include ads that:
- Contain false claims or misrepresentations of material facts that can't be substantiated;
- Make a representation likely to create unjustified expectations about the results of a procedure;
- Contain a testimonial with false, deceptive, or misleading statements or don’t include disclaimers or warnings about the credentials of the person delivering the testimonial; and
- Include photographs of models or actors but don't identify them as being models or actors, rather than actual patients.
View TMB's rules on medical practice advertising.
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Marketing Help Is Here
Officite, a new TMA endorsed vendor, offers website and Internet marketing services for medical practices. Officite helps physicians build their web presence and connect with patients.
Services include website design, search engine optimization, social networking, and management of patients' online practice reviews. For more information, or to learn more about discounted TMA member pricing and packages, visit www.officite.com or call (888) 817-4010.