How Cardiologists Can Take Advantage of Social Media’s Power

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Spend any time online and it’s not hard to stumble across countless advice articles on how to maintain a professional presence on social media.

Medicine is no different from other occupations, with hospitals and smaller practices reaching out to customers (patients) and other professionals. Cardiologists shouldn’t be left behind, but it’s important to know how to navigate the social media landscape.

The question of how cardiologists should use social media was the focus of a panel discussion in March at the American College of Cardiology scientific session in San Diego. There, social media trailblazers discussed how Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and other networks give physicians a channel to educate and connect with patients, control general dialogues about symptoms and warning signs, collaborate with peers near and far, and recruit patients and colleagues. They also can be used to spread new trial results or white papers much faster, and exclusive networks like SERMO and Doximity let physicians connect with colleagues across the globe.

So much information is generated every day that it’s almost impossible to keep on top of it, says Paul Tunnah, CEO and founder of pharmaphorum media. “But social media, by connecting with the right individuals, can act as a wonderful source for curating information, helping us to access the right information much more quickly and much more succinctly.”

As a tool for collaboration, social media allows many voices from around the globe to come together, drawing multiple perspectives into discussions, Tunnah says. “Social media is fantastic at connecting those different groups, getting their different perspectives together, and not just in a medical sense, but what’s actually happening in the real world.”

And, potentially, social media can impact the real world. Westby Fisher, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Ill., linked the American Board of Internal Medicine’s February changes to its maintenance of certification program to social media. A post he wrote about what he called the organization’s lavish spending—which he said included using physician testing fees to buy a $2.3 million condominium—was read 26,000 times, tweeted to 12,000 people and republished on another physician blog, where it was read by 55,000 and shared 74,000 times.

“This is how social media can keep pressure on and be a change agent for what physicians need in order to take care of their patients,” he says.

Sharing knowledge

Social media is also a tool for educating immediately, since so much of the world gets breaking news through such networks.

“In healthcare, we have issues, we have recalls. The ubiquity of social media gives us the chance to spread the word and save lives instantaneously,” says David E. Albert, MD, chief medical officer at AliveCor in San Francisco and inventor of the AliveCor ECG. “But we have to be responsible in its application. Obey the rules, but take advantage of its power.”

Those rules include not sharing patient information and not neglecting the human interaction that’s so important to treating patients.

“Maybe encourage patients to use it, but reiterate the importance of real-life interaction,” says Peter Papadakos, MD, of the University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York. Papadakos was charged with arguing against social media at the ACC panel, but he admitted all physicians should engage in online conversations.

Instead, he argued against overreliance on social media and cautioned against letting it become a distraction. As instantaneous as social media is for broadcasting to groups of people, it’s slower for one-on-one interaction between individuals, he says. And there’s no way to ensure the listener understands what’s being conveyed.

Also, he sees some medical students who are uncomfortable and unused to talking directly to patients because of a habit of relying on the more impersonal social media for their conversations.

Talking with patients & pros

Away from the panel discussion in San Diego, physicians in other specialties have already been brainstorming social media tips to pass to their colleagues within their specialty and across medicine. Garry Choy, MD, MBA, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who has nearly 8,000 Twitter followers, points out that cutting-edge technology makes for a can’t-miss eyeball magnet. Photo-intensive services, such as Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr, can be used to introduce this technology and the professionals who use it to a broader audience.

“People are fascinated by 3D images from inside the body,” says Choy, “and we also could be doing more with animated GIFs of, for example, functional MRI of the brain, cardiac imaging of a beating heart or dynamic contrast-enhanced studies.”

Even if patients use social media to share negative feedback about the care they received, these complaints should be seen as opportunities for providers to showcase winning customer-service skills.

“When a patient posts a negative comment on social media, you have the opportunity to express empathy and tell how you plan to resolve the problem,” says Abraham Seidmann, professor of business administration at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business in New York. “Then, when you have resolved the problem, post a description of that as well. Your silent patients are watching how you treat other patients.”

He adds that, no matter how trivial the concern might seem to the clinically minded—difficult parking, uncomfortable temperature in exam rooms, old magazines in the waiting area—every concern posted is an opening to relate, communicate and, yes, win or maintain market share.

Don’t neglect your professional followers, either. A recent report from Ragan’s Health Care Communication News showed that some 60 percent of physicians’ most popular activities on social media involve following what colleagues are sharing and discussing. Choy says Mass General Imaging’s Facebook page draws a steady stream of Likes and comments from referring physicians and their staffs. “We use our presence to market to everyone,” adds Choy. “Employees, inpatients, outpatients, referring offices—we put up a variety of content and rotate target segments to make sure we don’t leave anyone out.”

Ultimately, much success can be had on social media simply by showing up. “Make sure you get a social media footprint,” Fisher says. “First and foremost for your own professional approach. Have a LinkedIn page. Have a Twitter account. You can decide to look at it or not. It’s entirely up to you. Think about a professional Facebook page, think about a blog. And realize that there’s always someone smarter than you out there. And if you’re going to put something out there, fact check it and fact check it twice.”