Do I need an online presence?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: It depends on the purpose.
Asking if any clinician needs to have an online presence is akin to asking in the 1970s if one needed a fax machine, in 1980s if one needed an email address or in 1990s if one needed a mobile phone. Online and social media engagement is the natural progression of communication technology and media interaction. It is now the norm not the exception. Of course when it all started we did not have a manual, so some of us used it effectively and others poorly. Institutions, legal entities and patients were also learning how to draw boundaries around the use of social media and online communication in the sacred doctor-patient relationship. Social media was once since as a frivolous marketing façade amongst clinicians. We now understand its powerful effect to inform and even influence health outcomes.
As of Jan 2020, 3.8 Billion people use social media. Facebook reports 2.45 billion users, YouTube 2 billion, Instagram 1 billion, TikTok 800 Million, Twitter 340 Million. If you are not a citizen of any of these online nations, you will lose real estate and therefore you are not searchable by your current and future patients. Worldwide average of daily internet use is 6 hours and 43 minutes (!), and 2 hours 24 minutes of that is spent on social media platforms. How do people access the online world? 53% of the time through smart phones, 44% via laptops/desktops, the rest through tablet devices and others. Full article here.
So, do I need an online presence as a clinician?
Short answer: YES. Because your patients are already there. Your patients are likely to have a social media account, spend hours daily on social media and by the time they walk into your office, they would have googled you, your institution and their medical condition on their smart phones. Embrace that. Being aware of the average patient online behaviour prepares you to be a better assistant to their health needs. If your patient cannot find you anywhere on the internet to check your credentials, then you may well be considered less accessible than another clinician who details their expertise.
One of my biggest reasons for being online is this: my patients and my trainees are already there. I need to understand where they’re coming from.
On the other hand, the longer answer to that question is: it depends on what your purpose is in having an online presence. As clinicians and human beings, we can all have a social media account for personal use. That’s where we connect with our high school friends and relatives. However, if we were going to use our online presence and social media activity professionally, then can I suggest 3 levels of social media usage that you can consider?
At its most basic, your online presence is your virtual real estate. It is to be used to inform patients and other health care providers of your presence. You can have a basic website (free from many website providers), or homepage (linked to your University Departments, Institutions or Private Practices) or a Facebook page (A Facebook personal profile is different to a Facebook public Page). The contents simply need to include your prior training, current practice and specialty interests. You just need to show the world that you are a legitimate clinician expert who can be contacted in real life. The contents can be similar across several platforms (Facebook, Blogsite, Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). This is to help patients to find you when they google you. The information is basic and static. For most clinicians, this is sufficient, depending on your geography and local referral processes.
For those who want to take it up a notch, you can turn your static presence into a more dynamic engagement. You can be an educator who could engage the community. Your website can be regularly updated with information specific to your specialties. You can have an interactive dialogue on the Facebook page. You can comment and like, retweet and engage with others. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter all have unique target audiences and therefore require different strategies of engagements. There are pros and cons on using each platforms. Your specialty and your patient will define your method. Doing social media well takes time. Putting up information and expecting the engagement from the community takes time. But the rewards are also great because you will find that as you connect with others, you gain knowledge and network. If you are an educator, putting up good information online would be important for our trainees and our patients. As doctors, we have the privilege of our training and position. Our presence online matters and in this day and age of fake news, I sincerely hope more and more of us would stand together online as a scientific community to continually present reliable and practical information. Whenever there is information vacuum, bad news tend to fill it. We have a moral obligation to our community to be present in this online information market to represent clarity and certainty.
Finally, a few of us over time will end up being expert users of Social Media. This does not happen overnight and require long term strategy and time investment. You know some people with such great presence online who are powerful influencers. They have refined their presence over many years and reliably present clear information and therefore they become influencers and the go-to individuals. It is not how many followers you have. It’s how you influence them that matters. You can be followed by a handful of news reporters or other specialty clinicians and you can become the point person to connect and mobilise experts. The online connection crosses specialty boundaries, geographical limitations and timelines. You can connect with clinicians from other countries to collaborate on projects. You can be invited to speak at conferences or collaborate on manuscripts through the online networking. Social media is a catalyst and an accelerant when used well.
Some Practical Ground Rules to Note
You are a clinician and therefore the community holds you to a higher standard. Everybody’s watching and recording. Nothing gets deleted. The internet, like taxes, is forever permanent. So total RESPECT has to be first and foremost. You can provide opinions, but the information you provide online and the discussions you engage in has to be guarded by total respect because your words can be printed on the local newspaper and they can be sent to your Department Chief. This also means that jokes on other specialties or stereotyping people has to be done with care.
Never ever talk about patients. You can talk about conditions, but you must never talk about patients. Patient confidentiality rules in any country will be identical. Never break confidentiality, unless of course there is an expressed written permission. You can discuss, applaud, encourage a generic patient, but I would strongly advice against any specifi identifiable entries.
Be human. Be a social and a professional one. You do not have to reveal anything personal at all. You define your limits. Social media is a place where doctors can reveal their human side and engage in some non-medical interests and causes.
What about advertising?
Many clinicians would actually have an online presence for the primary purpose of advertising. In some countries that is normal and expected. In other countries, it is legally not allowed. I have worked in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. When I flew for several conferences in the USA, I was surprised to see the inflight magazine full of medical advertising from big Institutions and personal doctors. That was foreign to me, but normal and accepted in the US. For the US clinicians where advertising is accepted, having a social media online presence is even more critical for your career. Check your local regulations and you might even engage an advertising company to design an advertising campaign for you. There are multiple measurements and return of investments measures that can be applied.
For those of us in Australia, on the other hand, here are the boundaries set for us:
Section 133 Health Practitioner Regulation National Law on Advertising
A person must not advertise a regulated health service, or a business that provides a regulated health service, in a way that–
(a) is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to be misleading or deceptive; or
(b) offers a gift, discount or other inducement to attract a person to use the service or the business, unless the advertisement also states the terms and conditions of the offer; or
(c) uses testimonials or purported testimonials about the service or business; or
(d) creates an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment; or
(e) directly or indirectly encourages the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of regulated health services.
It’s all fair and logical, in my words:
- Can’t fake your service. You can’t say you’re the best.
- Can’t offer gifts or enticements. Can’t say “do facelift and I’ll throw a discount rhinoplasty.”
- Can’t use testimonials. Can’t get your mum to say nice things about you.
- Can’t say this surgery or medicine will fix everything.
- Can’t offer unnecessary treatments.
How do I maneuver around these reasonable practical limits? Education. In health industry, education is the best form of marketing. You can’t talk about patients, but you can talk about conditions. You can’t say how awesome you are, but you can talk about the procedures you do for certain conditions. Ultimately the more educational materials you put up on your Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and even TikTok, the more likely it is for the google algorithm to discover you. All these things are generally free. The main cost is time and effort. The internet records activities. The more active you are on any platform, the more likely you will rise on search engine rankings.
So there you go. Do you need an online presence?
The answer is “yes”. But what for?
I hope the answer to that is “for my patients and my trainees.” Our greatest satisfaction is seeing people get better. Help them get better information and better health.
See you online.