It is no longer a question of whether docs and other healthcare providers need to develop an online marketing strategy, rather the questions are: how soon? and for how much?  ZocDoc, the online doctor-finder, has recently published a white paper on the topic, “Marketing for Healthcare Providers:  A Primer for the Digital Age 2013.”  It is worth a read.

The Primer is a mix of snippets from research studies and quotes from interviews with digital healthcare leaders. (I was fortunate enough to have been included in the latter.)  It covers four main topics:

  • Getting started – how will you engage?
  • Being online now – web and social media best practices
  • Owning your presence – review sites and reputation management
  • The power of accessibility – turning it all into patient connections

It also includes an interactive ROI calculator and a checklist of questions to ask a marketing or social media vendor.

Geez, we have come a long way from the days when physicians wouldn’t consider any type of advertising beyond hanging out a shingle or having a listing in yellow pages of the phone book (for those of you to young to remember, phone books were what we used BG – Before Google).

Here are a few highlights from the Primer:

  • “According to a 2012 Pfizer survey, 25% of US doctors use social media professionally every day.”
  • “Sixty percent of physicians say they either use or would like to use social networking to engage with patients and enhance their reputation [Manhatten Research survey].”
  • “A full third of all US consumers now trust not only the internet but specifically social media to obtain healthcare information, discuss symptoms and care, and share feedback about their physicians. [PricewaterhouseCoopers]”
  • And, from the Pew Foundation’s November 2012 report, “of the 74 percent of American adults with access fto the internet, 80 percent now say they’ve tapped it to research a health topic.”

The Internet Age of Healthcare has arrived and there is no turning back.

 

Do I Really Have to Do It?

If you aren’t planning to engage in an active online presence, including social media, chances are you are going to experience some repercussions.  First of all, chances are your colleagues are increasingly embracing social media as a way of engaging patients and second, patients increasingly expect this type of engagement and may well consider switching providers to get it.  According to the Primer a survey from IntuitHealth found that “59% of Gen Y and 29% of Baby Boomers [would] consider switching providers in order to take advantage of [online] services.”

Val Jones, MD, CEO of Better Health points to another reason for physicians to connect with their patients via an online presence:  The “….abundance of misinformation [about health and healthcare]…is a key reason that it’s so important to bring physician into the online conversation.”

When I first started practice, patients went to doctors because we “owned” the information patients needed or wanted.  We acquired it by spending 5-10 years cramming it into our brains during medical school and residency.  But, we no longer have exclusive rights to the information.  Our “product” is now easily accessible on the internet.  In fact, I have observed many instances where patients, particularly those with uncommon or complicated conditions, know much more about their disease and its treatments than their generalist (or in some cases, specialist) physicians because of online research.  Non-proceduralist doctors need to recognize that our role with respect to healthcare knowledge has changed in a profound way.

Social media is one way that docs can reinsert themselves into the health information ecosystem.  Blogs, online videos, tweets, texts, emails and doctor prescribed healthcare apps can all engage patients with reliable, doctor-provided, healthcare information in ways that are quite different from the traditional 15 minute office visit – and that is a very good thing.

 

Online Choices – How to Grow Your Digital Footprin 

The Primer also explores each of the major ways that healthcare providers can develop their digital presence.  According to Howard Luks, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and social media expert, “Your online presence starts with a platform and an identity.”  I don’t know about you, but I go two places when I want to assess credibility of a person I am thinking about doing business with.  I google to find their website and I check them out on LinkedIn.  If they aren’t there or I don’t like what I see, I am probably am not going to engage with them.

The section on networking and content sites is very interesting.  Websites offer place to provide information, but networking sites, like twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn provide opportunities to interact….this is the social part of social media.  According to Kevin Pho, MD, founder of KevinMD, a widely read healthcare blog, “Connecting is a two-way street and we need both sides to stay relevant.”The Primer describes how to use each of the networking sites and a brief section on ‘best practices” for Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and YouTube.

By now, you may be thinking, OMG, is this why I went to medical school?  How will I ever find time to do this?  The answer for many may be outsourcing.  There is a whole social media industry out there waiting to help you, including social media managers, videography companies, and marketing strategy consultants.  Don’t you love the way new businesses spring up to meet every challenge?

 

Owning Your Presence

One of the more interesting sections in the Primer is “Owning Your Presence.”  The point of this section is if you don’t manage your reputation, the wild world of the Internet will – and it may not be pretty.   We have all seen the sites that have old or inaccurate information about ourselves.  I still appear on some of these although I have not been practicing medicine for many years.

Here are some interesting statistics from ZocDoc:

  • “Of the 10% of doctors who receive the most reviews on their site, three fourths have at least one negative review.”
  • “Patients  are no less likely to book appointments with doctors who have received a few negative reviews than their counterparts.”
  • “Only when a provider’s overall rating falls to 2.5 stars or less do patients book precipitously fewer appointments with that provider.”
  • “Patients show no consistent preference for physicians with higher ratings.”
  • “For every half-star improvement in overall score [there is] a 37% increase in appointments booked.”

For healthcare providers who have been in practice for a long time this brave new world of social media can be intimidating.  The initial response is probably, “I am not going to do this.” Remember, we said that about managed care too.  But if we are to really move away from doctor-centric care and towards patient-centric care, we have to engage with patients in a whole new way – besides, they are going to insist on it.

 

Some Final Thoughts

Is it going to take time and money to do this?  Yes.  Is it going to be worth it?  I think so.  As health economist Jane Sarasohn Kahn puts it:  “In this era of accountable care, doctors will increasingly be competing for business…It can deeply benefit physicians to offer various online retail-oriented transactions that provide value, like scheduling appointments, taking care o the copayment, or helping patients with administrative tasks.  Will patients benefit?  No question- as we move away from the “get in your car and drive to the doctor” way of delivering healthcare, patients are going to have better access at a lower cost and they are going to be able to make more informed decisions.  My only unanswered question is this: “When is social media going to be added to the medical school curriculum?”

 

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