How Can a Healthcare Professional Use Social Media to Grow Their Business

Social Media: Opportunities and Dangers

With social media, healthcare providers have many tools at their disposal to help build their businesses. Social network sites can be a powerful tool in the hands of persons who know how to leverage it to its full potential. When social media is misunderstood or misapplied, it can turn into a time sink where many hours that could have been spent more productively in other ways to build your business. Since social media is easily misunderstood, it will help to clarify some of those areas.

One of the things that makes it confusing is that social media uses terms that people often assume they understand, like 'networking', yet in the realm of social media, it has very different meanings.

Social Media and Meetings

With 128 million people using the internet in the US, the way of reaching people and being relevant to their needs has changed. This means that the way of doing business has changed as well. The public now consults their phone for the best buys on products and services. They are also using their phones to purchase items. The changes in the way business is conducted also impacts healthcare.

Social Media offers many tools that you as a healthcare professional can use to build your business. With the use of social (interactive) media, the nature of business building has changed. Social network sites provide an interactive way of dealing with potential clients. In previous generations, the relationship between a healthcare provider and potential clients was limited to one way interactions dominated by the healthcare professional. Today, the patients talk back to you using Facebook, email, twitter or some other service, asking questions and want you as a healthcare professional to be responsive. If you provide good service, they can tell others, if your service is lacking, your reputation suffers much faster when they use social media.

In previous generations, any kind of marketing consisted of ads telling about the services provided and contact information. If the healthcare professional had social skills, they may even engage in networking as a way to develop their business. In previous generations, networking consisted of joining local business promotion groups in the local community. A healthcare professional typically joined the Chamber of Commerce, local professional group of their specialization, a business group like the lions or rotary or if they are really adventurous, toastmasters.

With social media, the groups that an aspiring healthcare professional joins have changed. Sure, there are still some of the old groups used in previous generations, which can be used. Social media provides more options. There are physician only sites like Sermo.com, which are a social media site devoted to only physicians.

In other healthcare areas, professional groups like the American Psychological Association and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy have developed their media presence. This allows the old professional groups to have a new place to meet on the internet.

In addition to those groups, there are groups on social media sites, themselves. LinkedIn has many professional groups on its site, as does Facebook. These groups vary by specialty. There are groups on oncology, depression, healthcare professional support, etc. Such groups often provide forums where you can discuss issues of concern to yourself as the healthcare provider. I recall a recent lively discussion on the existence on Sexual Addictions on LinkedIn, where healthcare professionals addressed the issue from many different perspectives. These provide a place to find out the latest information and to stay in touch with colleagues.
These groups provide a forum where healthcare professional meet and connect with others sharing similar interests. This is a new application of old style social networking. The networking that occurred at monthly or annual meetings is now available on a daily basis. Meetings and relationship continue remaining an important essential for a healthcare professional to develop in building their business.

The New Networking and New Challenges

Social media is changing the application of the term 'networking' in new ways. With social media, the healthcare professional is faced with the new dimension when you have to deal with interactive media. In previous generations, building a practice involved the use of static media. With social media, the relationship between the healthcare provider and client becomes interactive. It is no longer one way with the healthcare provider telling the public that they are the expert and the patient has to accept that. Now the public talks back to you, wanting evidence of your expertise, caring and empathy. In the past, you could get away with just 'being the healthcare professional'. In the age of social media, they want to know something about Dr. Jane, or Jack the therapist.

With the new application of 'networking' including the interaction with the client, healthcare professionals are in new game. The clients now ask questions and interact with them in an environment where the healthcare provider is not the one in control. The healthcare professional and the potential clients now share control. Potential clients now ask questions and engage in social interactions that did not exist ten years ago. With social media, the potential client is empowered.They know more and want more than they did ten years ago.

With social media, today's patients often self-diagnose before seeing the healthcare professional. In one study 81% of respondents indicated that they expect to find help on the internet, including medical help. This means that the public is going to the internet, and its social media for their healthcare help including self-diagnosis. In one recent study 47% of those seeking medical information also made self-diagnoses. This practice is becoming so prevalent, there is a tendency to refer to Dr. Google. One of the big challenges related to this information is is that the public is not always verifying the veracity of information they obtain.

Not only are the public going to the internet looking for help, they are often diagnosing themselves with the information they have access to. Dr. Bryan Varabedian said "Information is the new third party in the exam room". (Dr. Varabedian maintains a blog addressing the convergence of social media and medicine.) Healthcare providers building their business now have to deal with patients having and using more information.Some of the information is good, while some is not from proven sources. Another challenge is when patients have the right information but are using it in an unorthodox manner.

With patients knowing more, they have begun to self-diagnose their presenting issues or problems.The whole idea of patients daring to self-diagnose is seen as threatening by some healthcare professionals. In Texas, a physician's group has sued the Chiropractors, podiatrists and family therapists because they dared to diagnose clients. This is a far cry from Pennsylvania, where all 277 of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) sent out e-mails, offering digital house calls. In that state, some patients receive a diagnosis without seeing a doctor (or any healthcare professional) in person or even speaking to one on the phone. It remains to be seen how those healthcare professionals will respond to patients diagnosing themselves. Today's social media savvy patients also present with more information and ask more informed questions than previous generations. Healthcare professionals now have to be prepared to deal with this challenge of patients having a knowledgeable voice in their healthcare decisions. The patients of today do not always go along with healthcare choices, just based on your word. They may also compare your information vith what they find on the internet. This means the healthcare professional needs to provide good information and be on top of the latest trends and developments in their field.

The input of patients in healthcare decisions has great potential in improving the quality of healthcare. By using social media, the patients are not only making informed choices, they are speaking out. With patients having a voice, the healthcare providers who listen to their voices and respond will be seen as the expert. This means that healthcare will have to become more responsive to patients overall if they want their business to thrive.

Potential patients also want to know about their healthcare providers. When patients are often limited as to who the patient can see, when the patients do have some choice, they often have questions and want to interact with the provider. Social media provides a way for them to "get to know" their healthcare provider. Providers that learn how to use social media in dealing with patients will be ahead of their competition. Those providers will also need to develop written "social media policies" in dealing with those patients. Healthcare providers using social media will need to be clear concerning the boundaries between themselves and clients, specifying what information they will share about themselves and their accessibility.

In using the new social media, the public is now going to Facebook or Google to find help before they go to the yellow pages. This means that healthcare providers who do not have a social media presence will be passed over. They will not even by considered by potential patients that are seeking out healthcare.

The Importance of Social Media

When millions of people are using social networks, those healthcare providers who choose not to be a part of it by exercising 'social media abstinence' are missing out on the changing way that people interact. Healthcare professionals who choose to avoid social sites altogether are crippling themselves. The public now use them extensively. Whether in the use of their computers or phones, or both, it is a reality. Social media has changed the way people interact in the marketplace.

Dr. Ross Speck, who researched social networks back in the 1970's saw the changes coming. He stated, "If the psychotherapist is to maintain a healing relationship with human beings in this predicament [social change]-if he is to be of value in relieving distress-he has to innovate". Although Dr. Speck's comments were directed at psychotherapists, it has application to any healthcare professional in practice today. It is becoming important for healthcare providers to know how to use social media, or hire someone for them who does.

Dr. Ken Cohn MD, has observed the importance of the new media and medical practice. He often addresses this subject. He sees the time for healthcare providers to act on social media is now, "...because physician leaders over the next 2 years will influence patterns of care delivery for the next 25 years".
Social media is also a way for an aspiring healthcare professional to compete with much larger competition, whether it be from other people in healthcare, publishing or speaking. Using social media removes the size advantage that some exploit in providing healthcare.

Dr. Ken Cohn who has pioneered collaborative work between physicians, hospitals and patients has used the new media to present the message of his work to others. In promoting his book, "I see social media as a great equalizer." He has seen social media improve the quality of care for hospitals. He has also seen how he, with his book could compete with larger publishers using social media.

Social media also allows the little person just starting out to make a name for themselves. A highly responsive healthcare professional can establish a name for themselves with the public rather than always having to be dependent on the power brokers of established practices.

Social sites are is changing healthcare, including how healthcare providers build their practice. It changes how clients find them, interact with them, and services are delivered. It also changes the way that healthcare providers will find potential patients. Knowing how to use and master social media is critical for any healthcare professional wanting to build their business in today's social media saturated culture.

Social Media Tools

Once you as a healthcare provider has a social media policy, you need to use the tools available. Below are some of the social media tools and ways they can be used by a healthcare professional in building their business.

Facebook: Facebook is the largest social community. With increasing frequency, people search Facebook for their needs. You can have business page to establish awareness of your business. Given the size of Facebook, it is critical that the healthcare provider have a page in order to remain relevant.

LinkedIn: This social site allows healthcare professionals to network with other professionals. 80% of small business owners in one 2011 survey report using LinkedIn. Having a profile will let others know that you are in business and lead to important business leads. Building a business often involves joint ventures. LinkedIn is a way to find potential partners for joint ventures.

Twitter: This site provides a platform to keep people informed of "what is going on". The public often likes to know about what is new. Keeping them informed as to events and new items coming out. In the US, 13% of the population online use twitter.

Digg: This news site can be used to develop a following for healthcare providers.

Google: Although not often seen as a social media, it has many functions that involve social interactions. This is where people look for services. Having a good Google ranking can make a difference in your business visibility.

Once a healthcare provider has visibility, they will need to use social media in interacting with their potential clients.

The healthcare provider can use these tools for announcements, patient education, answering frequently asked questions, dealing with common healthcare issues, and healthcare topics that would be of interest to them.

Summary of how to use social media

To sum up how a healthcare professional can use social sites to build their business the following steps can be taken:

1. Network with other professionals and people in the local community.

2. Provide good patient information. Become a resource. For example, if you are a chiropractor, you could write a series of articles, blog posts, etc. on exercise, health eating, how to lift heavy loads, etc. With each article, it would enhance your expertise in the eyes of potential clients.

3. Have a written social media policy, then use social media to promote your business.

4. Interact on social sites regarding questions and concerns. Be willing to answer questions and make yourself accessible on such sites. You can use them to post interesting articles, videos, etc.

5. Know how to use social sites to their full potential. Social media has many opportunities. You can set up a blogtalk radio show, have regular episodes on your own YouTube channel, have book club on LibraryThing. You are limited only by your own imagination in reaching out to clients and provide good quality patient care.

6. Let the community know that you are accessible on social sites. Include your twitter address, or Facebook logo on your advertising.