3 Ways Healthcare Providers Can Take Advantage Of Social Media Disruption
Social media and the internet are having a profound effect on healthcare—a digital disruption that currently impacts more than 1 billion potential patients and is estimated to affect 2.5 billion by 2018. For healthcare providers, this disruption presents both risk and opportunity as the traditional doctor-patient relationship is radically modified by digitally empowered patients, online channels for direct and immediate patient-doctor communication, and a plethora of freely available and easily searchable medical “advice” that can lead to misguided self-diagnoses and impede proper treatment.
1. Patient Empowerment
The introduction of social media in healthcare has given rise to healthcare consumerism, giving patients more power than at any time in history. No longer do patients have to choose a healthcare provider from a haphazardly compiled list, the phone book, or friends’ recommendations. Patients can review doctors’ education, experience, and ratings online; seek information about treatment; engage with other patients; and make informed decisions before they ever make contact with a provider.
In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, 48% of all patients say online reviews from other patients influenced their decision when choosing a healthcare provider.
Obviously, more information can be helpful in making a decision, but there is a downside to online reviews not only because they can be subjective but because they can give a disproportionate amount of power to disgruntled patients. (That old trope that satisfied customers tell a few people, while dissatisfied customers tell everyone, is nowhere more evident than on social channels.) It is critical, therefore, for healthcare providers to be active participants in social media and online reviews, responding to patient complaints before they spiral out of control.
Risk: One or two disgruntled patients post undefended complaints or bad reviews about you on social channels, and your reputation takes a dive.
Opportunity: One or two disgruntled patients post complaints or bad reviews about you on social channels, but your quick and professional reaction builds your reputation as a responsive, knowledgeable provider, brings out loyal patients who defend you online, and wins new patients.
A month ago, I went to the doctor and took a calcium test. At the end of the appointment, the doctor asked if I wanted to sign up for her practice’s patient portal. I did, and voilà, when the time came, I was able to log in and see my test results along with notes from my doctor. I didn’t have to schedule a follow-up visit. The doctor didn’t have to call me. No one had to kill a tree to send me reams of paperwork.
Online test results are just one aspect of the digital revolution in healthcare communication. Some healthcare providers have social media ambassadors who represent their organization on Facebook and Twitter, directly engaging with patients. In other health centers, doctors are using custom mobile applications or Skype to communicate directly with their patients.
In a health survey conducted in 2014, 40% of physicians responded that they believe the use of digital technologies to communicate with patients can improve outcomes over office visits alone and the same percentage said they are increasing their use of digital tools. And according to a recent study conducted by CVS Health, 70% of patients that were offered a telehealth session agreed to it and one third preferred telehealth interactions to a traditional visit. To stay competitive, healthcare providers clearly must invest in digital methods of communicating with patients.
Risk: Content to stick to predigital practices, you continue to communicate with patients via telephone and snail mail and rely primarily on in-office visits for diagnoses, treatment advice, and follow-up. You are compelled to keep long office hours because you cannot take advantage of telemedicine even as your practice shrinks when patients turn to providers that take advantage of social media and other digital capabilities to communicate with and provide care for their patients.
Opportunity: In your modernized practice, you start the day consulting with a traveling patient via Skype, advising him to find local medical attention for what appears to be an allergic reaction. Between office visits, you remind patients via Facebook and Twitter that it is flu season and offer family discounts for flu shots, and you share and retweet reputable studies that support your views on childhood vaccines. You also ensure that patients’ test results are posted on your secure patient portal. You leave for dinner on time, knowing that you can check in on a vulnerable patient via video chat later in the evening. Your practice and reputation grow as patients spread the word about how accessible and proactive you are as a physician and how easy it is to deal with your practice.
3. Medical Advice
Got a symptom? Type it into Google, and you’ll get plenty of information about it. You’ll be served with legitimate-sounding websites, government-sponsored information, forums, doctors answering questions, and a bevy of other inputs.
That’s both good and bad. While some sites will reassure patients, other sites may scare them and send them in the wrong direction as they self-diagnose. For example, in many cases a curious red lump may be described as normal and something thousands of other people have experienced. On other websites patients may get a “could be cancer” page that ruins their night and leaves the healthcare provider to deal with the fallout.
A study conducted in 2012 found that 80% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 would share information online and 90% would trust the information they found there. Veracity is an issue with almost any area of the internet, of course, but special care should be taken when seeking health advice, with patients doing due diligence to confirm these online “physicians” are reputable medical professionals with experience relevant to the advice they offer.
Risk: During a six-month period, three of your digitally connected patients demand CT scans in response to mild headaches, one patient insists his recent back pain requires an emergency MRI, a handful of patients criticize you—on social channels—for belittling their concerns when you asked them where they obtained their medical information, and a group of parents publicly and incorrectly includes you in a list of doctors whose views on childhood immunizations is not in keeping with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Vaccine Program office website.
Opportunity: Knowing the risks involved in self-diagnosis, you and a member of your office staff regularly scan the most-popular health-related sites for misleading information and keep an updated list of reputable sites and relevant studies on your practice’s website and Facebook pages. Particularly dangerous claims are highlighted and when appropriate are debunked with reputable information. In addition, you post your own health content online and promote it via social channels, decreasing the chance that a misinformed patient will overlook a dangerous symptom or overreact to a benign one and increasing your brand as a trusted provider of healthcare information.
More and more healthcare is moving online, empowering patients by providing a channel for health education and literacy and increasing patients’ role in taking responsibility for their own health. The digital revolution also has made communication easier for both patient and provider. Physicians and their staffs, therefore, would be well served to be as technologically savvy as possible: healthcare providers must become active users of these disruptive technologies and make sure they are used effectively, securely, and ethically—not only for the sake of their patients but also for the sake of their own medical practice.