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Social Media Tips for Medical Practices: A How-To Guide

August 13, 2018

The benefits of using social media in a medical practice are becoming increasingly clear, which makes the pressure to get involved even greater. As medical practices become more sophisticated at using social media for knowledge sharing, marketing, and other forms of communication, those who fail to participate will fall behind. These social media tips for medical practices can help you get started.

medical practice social media straregy brainstorming diagram on a clear glass windowThe Benefits of Social Media for a Medical Practice

There are two primary advantages for medical practices using social media.

1. Social Media Helps You Demonstrate Your Commitment to Patients

One major reason to get involved with social media is that it's a way to demonstrate commitment to your patients. Patients now expect high levels of service from their healthcare providers just as they do in other industries. As service providers in many other industries engage people digitally via social media, email, and other means, this type of communication becomes the norm. As a result, patients now rate internet friendliness as an important factor in the quality of the healthcare they receive. Patients of all ages also report sometimes preferring digital communication over other modes of communication.

Medical practices show their patients that they care about them by honoring their communications preferences. Given the drive toward digital communication in other industries, staying out of social media can give an impression of being behind the times. While your choices regarding participating in popular culture should not be a direct indication of your clinical skills, people tend to generalize their perceived characteristics of you in one context to other contexts.

Communication and access to care are among the top issues affecting patient satisfaction. Establishing an active social media presence — coupled with maintaining a healthcare blog — can be for your practice an “always on” communication channel and source of trusted information to supplement in-person care. This can help increase patient satisfaction, which could also help improve your online physician ratings.

2. Social Media Enables You to Market Yourself in a Merit-Based Manner

Gone are the days where advertisements that involved listing your qualifications were enough to convince patients to see you. Patients research physicians through online ratings sites, social media and web searches. That means providing helpful information, articles, and tips through social media and blogs is critically important.

To be seen as an authority in your field, you have to demonstrate your credibility and commitments to patients. Blogging and sharing important general health information via social media provides patients with critical information and also provides opportunities to improve care. If you are putting valuable information on your website via a blog, share it on your social media channels to help your website rank higher in website searches, increasing website traffic, which will help attract new patients and keep existing patients engaged with your practice between visits.

Even for those who are not concerned with getting more patients or increasing patient satisfaction, social media can serve as an important professional networking tool. For instance, tweeting articles you’ve written increases the number of times the articles are cited, which is critical for your reach and impact.

Select the Networks That Are Right For Your Practice

Healthcare providers often use LinkedIn for professional purposes. Nonetheless, Twitter and Facebook have a large amount of medical engagement as well, and in the past few years, medical content on Instagram has been exploding. Choosing the best networks to be on depends critically on who you want to reach, what information you want to gather and the types of messages you want to get across.

Generally, LinkedIn is a great platform for connecting with colleagues, whereas Facebook is great for deploying advertisements targeted to the specific demographics of patients that you’re reaching out to. Instagram also tends to be best for connecting with patients, and Twitter usually has benefits with both professional and general audiences.

For the sake of comparison, the number of active users on each social network varies widely. As of January 2018, LinkedIn had 260 million active users per month, whereas Twitter had 330 million, and Instagram had 800 million. Facebook, however, remains the platform with the most active users, with 2.2 billion active users per month. But network size is not the most critical factor in choosing a network to engage on.

Determine Where Your Audience Is on Social Media

Ultimately, the right social media networks for your practice are the ones where your target audience — your patients and prospective patients — are most engaged. The various social networks have a diversity of users across demographic categories such as age, education, and income, yet each network has their own demographic profile. Knowing the audience you’re trying to reach and where they are on social media is critical to successful use of social media in your practice.

Social media management platform Sprout Social has a wealth of resources on social media use, as well as demographic data on the major social networks, which we cite in this section.

Social Media Demographics: Age
While social media use began among the younger population, this reality is changing as existing social media users age and as older people initiate social media accounts for the first time. For example, 62% of people who are 65 and older are now on Facebook. However, only 20% of this age group use LinkedIn, only 10% use Twitter, and only 8% use Instagram. If you’re trying to reach out to an older audience, Facebook might be a great option, while Twitter and Instagram may not be. A full two-thirds of all LinkedIn users are under 50 years old (34% between 18 and 29 and 33% between 30-49). On Twitter, 59% of users are under 50, but skewing a bit younger than LinkedIn, with 36% between ages 18-29 years old and 23% between 30 and 49 years old.

Social Media Demographics: Income Level
Interestingly, Facebook is the only platform where the lowest earning bracket has the highest representation. 84% of adults who earn less than $30,000 per year use Facebook. 77% of those earning over $75,000 per year are on the platform. Instagram use does not appear to be affected by income. For instance, 38% of adults who earn less than $30,000 per year are on Instagram, and 37% of those earning more than $75,000 per year are too. LinkedIn and Twitter use, however, is highest amongst those who earn the most. For those who earn more than $75,000 per year, 45% use LinkedIn, while lower percentages of those earning less money are on this platform. Similarly, 30% of adults earning more than $75,000 per year use Twitter, with fewer people in lower income brackets on the platform.

Social Media Demographics: Education
LinkedIn is primarily used for professional purposes, and so it has a lot of users in the early and middle stages of their careers. It is the only platform where education level is significantly predictive of use. Of all college graduates, 50% are on LinkedIn, where only 12% of those who have earned a high school diploma or less use LinkedIn.

Developing a strategy that leverages different social media platforms to ensure that you are reaching your target audience is the best way to make use of your resources. Looking to what other medical practices, both large and small, are doing can be useful when putting together your strategy and your content. Many of the big players in healthcare are on both Facebook and Twitter, including Mayo Clinic, WebMD, Healthline, MedLine Plus, FamilyDoctor.org and the Veterans Health Administration to name a few. Each of these groups have other social media accounts as well, but their engagement on other platforms varies.

Developing a Social Media Strategy: General Principles & Guidance

One of the hardest things for organizations to recognize is the need for long-term consistency in the use of their social media. Results take time, so it’s important to have staff dedicated to managing social content on a regular and long-term basis.

Analysis of success needs to be ongoing as well and requires establishing clear objectives. For instance, are you using social media to attract new patients, to increase patient satisfaction, to promote community health, to educate your patients, or for some other reason? It is likely that you have multiple goals, and you need to develop a strategy that allows you to track how specific strategies impact each of those goals so that your strategies can be optimized.

1. Make Social Media Someone's Job

Identifying a social media champion in your practice is one way to ensure success, whereas hiring someone external is an option as well. Regardless of what works best, it is important that someone is accountable for social media strategy, content development and analysis. For medical practices, it works best to have someone with medical training develop the content so that it is of high quality. Communications expertise is helpful as well, as it is critical to craft content that your audience can digest and that has the impact you want it to have.

It’s also advisable that the person managing your social media strategy be savvy and active on the networks you choose. Each social network is a unique online community with its own ethos and culture. Understanding and adapting your content and engagement to each channel will help drive engagement, as you’ll be seen to “get” the people who use that network. Someone who’s already active and successful on a channel will be better equipped to succeed for your practice.

2. Stay Actively Engaged to Build Following

One of the biggest challenges that you should think about as you are developing your strategy is gaining a following. It is best to build an organic following, and this takes time. Though it is not rare for people to purchase followers — and it may be tempting to do so as a "quick fix" — there are few benefits to doing so, as inorganic followers are not likely to engage authentically with your content or to promote your specific goals. Additionally, as people become more social media savvy — and as social networks continue cracking down on these practices — they can identify accounts that have purchased their followers, which can reduce your credibility.

To gain an organic following, you must provide content that is of value to the audience you are trying to attract. In healthcare, this type of content usually comes in the form of useful health information. Covering timely topics is one of the best ways to gain a following in healthcare.

3. Use a Social Media Management Tool to Manage Your Efforts

The best way to monitor engagement is to do so personally because it is the only way to respond constructively to those who have taken time to engage with you. Most social networks also offer their own analytics to help you see how well your posts are doing, but the information is often limited to consolidating the basic stats (such as likes and follows) that are already publicly displayed on the network.

For more robust analysis of your efforts, social media management tools can help you more efficiently engage on social media platforms on a regular basis. However, as with gaining a following, it is important when using management tools that you keep your engagement authentic. For instance, there are tools that will allow you to automatically comment on certain types of posts. However, if you have not actually read the post, it is unlikely that an automated comment will be thoughtful or useful.

These tools usually provide some analytics to help you determine the best times to post based on audience engagement, the types of content that are the most likely to lead to engagement, and often a way to track other social media accounts to see what they're having success with. Identify a few top healthcare accounts (you can usually go to their website to see which ones they're using) and see what aspects of what they do you can incorporate into your strategy. On social media, "follow the leader" is great way to get started.

Another benefit of using a social media management tool is that they enable you to create your posts whenever it's convenient and schedule them for posting later. This is handy if your social media champion manages it part time in addition to their other tasks. Setting aside an hour in their day to see what's happening on your social channels and scheduling the full day's posts is  great way to efficiently manage your social media efforts.

Many of these tools like Hootsuite, Buffer and others offer free plans or trials so you can try them out and see which works best for you.

HIPAA & Legal Concerns

There are a lot of warnings in healthcare about social media use, most of which focus on HIPAA rules and both ethical and legal concerns regarding the sharing of patient information. However, the benefits of participating in social media do not require exposing any PHI or engaging in the types of information sharing that can run you afoul of privacy laws. Thus, those types of concerns can be avoided by developing content strategies that involve distributing valuable general medical information that does not pertain to individual patients. For instance, covering the latest medical research that is relevant to your practice and distributing information on news in your medical field can help you achieve both professional development and business-related goals while attracting patients and improving health literacy.

 

Despite some challenges associated with regulatory realities and the relative newness of social media, medical practices should not shy away from using these platforms to achieve their business goals. The longer medical practices wait to engage with patients on social media, the harder it will be for them to catch up to others who are gaining expertise in best practices.

Linked Sources

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T. K. Houston, et al. "Experiences of Patients Who Were Early Adopters of Electronic Communication with Their Physician: Satisfaction, Benefits, and Concerns." Am J Manag Care. 2004 Sep;10(9):601-8. (accessed 5/7/2018)

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K. R. Schumacher, et al. “Social Media in Paediatric Heart Disease: Professional Use and Opportunities to Improve Cardiac Care.” Cardiol Young. 2015 Dec;25(8):1584-9. (accessed 5/7/2018)

D. J. Gould, et al. “A Primer on Social Media for Plastic Surgeons: What Do I Need to Know About Social Media and How Can It Help My Practice?Aesthet Surg J. 2017 May 1;37(5):614-619. (accessed 5/7/2018)

G. Eysenbach. “Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact.” J Med Internet Res. 2011 Dec 19;13(4):e123. (accessed 5/7/2018)

Statista. “Most Popular Social Networks Worldwide as of April 2018, Ranked by Number of Active Users (in Millions).” (accessed 5/7/2018)

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Filed under: Patient Communication, Article, Practice Manager, Marketing & Practice Building, Reputation Management, Social Media

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