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Social Media — Friend or Foe?

Social Media — Friend or Foe?

I recently hosted an "Ask the Expert" post on Sermo on the topic of social media for medical practices. While I was aware that some physicians were reluctant to add the management of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to their busy days, I was not prepared for the overwhelming concerns that most respondents had about the concept of using social media as a means for communicating with patients.

Why such fear? Many physicians believe that they open themselves up to potential liability risks by engaging in social media. Questions such as "What happens if a patient posts sensitive information on the Facebook page wall?" and "What if a patient asks an urgent question through this media and the physician doesn't see it until several days later?" were common during the Q&A. In practice, it is always prudent to be concerned with malpractice risk. That said, the key to effectively utilizing social media is twofold.

First, understand how these platforms can be beneficial for your practice. Most physicians who are using Facebook successfully see the platform as an extension of their practices' physical space. It is a great way to keep patients up to date on happenings in your practice and disseminate general tips and advice to keep patients healthy. It is also an effective way to alert your patient community to potential health risks such as an outbreak of the flu.

Here is a great example of how social media can work for your practice: One of our pediatric practices routinely posts "Ask the Doctor" videos on their practice Facebook page. These videos are taken with a simple flip video camera showing the doctor sitting at his desk or in an exam room, and each starts with a disclaimer that the three- or four-minute video is not intended to replace an office visit, is not specific to any individual patient, and should only be viewed as general information on the topic. Most of the videos discuss common childhood illnesses in a very general way and last only a couple of minutes. They are great promotional pieces and get hundreds of hits monthly, making excellent use of the platform for their practice.

Second, understand where the risks come in. The primary concerns are around patient privacy, so make sure you have an employee social media policy (download a Social Media Policy for Employees) in place at your practice. This will spell out to your employees what is acceptable behavior and what is not when interacting with your practice's Facebook page, and what they should keep off their own personal pages about the practice and its patients. Limit administrative access to only a few trusted employees and monitor the site routinely for posted content. It is also wise to add a disclaimer (download a General Disclaimer for Social Media Sites) to your practice's Facebook page, and if you link to Facebook or Twitter (or any other social media sites) from your own website, you might want to also post that information there.

As a general rule, you should check your social media sites daily. Read any posts that patients or fans have made there. Remove any comments that are inappropriate, and have a plan in place for how to deal with this issue should it come up. You might want to have crafted a specific message to send to the poster of the comment thanking them for their interest but reminding them of the terms of use disclaimer and recommending that they call the office or schedule an appointment for issues specific to their needs.

Social media presents a great opportunity to meet your patients where they are — online. Just remember to keep your posts general and nonspecific, limit accessibility, ensure you have policies in place for use, and monitor sites frequently.

Susanne Madden, MBA, is founder and CEO of The Verden Group, a consulting and business intelligence firm that specializes in practice management, physician education, and healthcare policy. She can be reached at madden@theverdengroup.com or by visiting www.theverdengroup.com.

 
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