The landscape of the business of medicine is changing drastically. Stand-alone private practices (particularly in cardiology and other specialties) are becoming extinct dinosaurs. Instead, the new trend has become integration — groups are gradually merging with large healthcare and hospital systems. Competition is fierce, and individual and group reputations have become more and more important. Potential patients also now have choices in providers.
Patients are becoming better participants in their own healthcare, and are becoming more medically sophisticated as well as technologically savvy. Traditionally, a physician’s reputation was best established and passed along by word of mouth. Discussions among friends or at church, sporting events or civic groups often provided the information necessary for potential patients to choose a healthcare provider. Today, most patients and consumers of healthcare get information about medical conditions and physicians online. Some studies have shown that nearly 80% of today’s consumers go online first when evaluating a medical provider. The Internet is omnipresent and information is easily accessible. Information (whether accurate or not) is consumed and perpetuated at a lightning speed pace, and it is often difficult to keep up with one’s own digital presence. Information is not regulated nor verified but rapidly consumed nonetheless. Physicians must actively manage their online reputations or suffer the consequences of an unfair and unfounded digital reputation. In my world, online reputation is critical. Cyberspace is where my patients and customers are, where they go first, and where I need to be. Additionally, many referring physicians and colleagues utilize the Internet to find experts in particular conditions or procedures. Today, many important connections and consultations may result from cyber-interactions via social media outlets.
In today’s healthcare market, websites are available to patients to post comments or complaints about a medical provider or service. These sites are rarely monitored, and misinformation is often perpetuated. In many instances, only negative comments are left by unhappy patients — satisfied patients often do not take the time to post. Remember, the Internet is permanent. Much of what is posted feeds upon itself, and many things have no relationship to reality. In studies of consumers, it has been shown that often 3–5 people will post positive remarks about a product or service, whereas 10–20 will post a negative one. The anonymity that the Internet affords promotes posting of negative comments whether or not they are true.
A key component of one’s cyber footprint or Internet presence is social media. Outlets such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and blog software such as WordPress afford an opportunity to develop an online reputation. Social media can help physicians increase referrals, grow a patient base, and help create a positive reputation. Social media and the Internet can help physicians improve care — it is a low-cost platform in which we are able to quickly disseminate all kinds of information to a large number of patients (and potential patients). Outcomes may be improved by writing informational pieces about how patients can effectively participate in their own care and co-manage certain disease processes. We may be able to set realistic expectations for patients before they come to the office by publishing a “digital guidebook” that describes office operations and procedures and exactly what to expect during a visit. However, social media can just as easily be used by unhappy patients, former employees, and competitors in a negative way that may sully and, in some cases, completely ruin a reputation. This is where managing an online reputation is critically important. Managed correctly, a physician’s online reputation can pay off big in the long run.
Key Concepts When Managing a Digital or Online Reputation
#1: You cannot control what people are saying about you or your business. However, by providing superior service and high-quality care, you can influence how people see you and your practice. Digital reputations can make or break practices and physicians in today’s highly competitive medical market. Bottom line: Practice good medicine, and treat all patients with compassion and respect. You are in control of the care you provide.
#2: You have 100% control of the online story YOU create. It has often been said in sports and in war that “the best defense is a good offense.” Never has that been more true than in managing an online reputation. It is imperative that physicians create an active social media presence now. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube are wonderful outlets in which you can showcase who you are and what you represent. I believe that creating and maintaining an active blog is essential to the development of an effective online reputation. Blogging allows you to publish your thoughts and opinions, makes YOU the expert, and allows readers to get a sense of who you are and what values you hold close. If you do not create your own story, you remain at the mercy of what others say and create digitally about you — much of which may not be true. In addition, be careful about what you post on personal social media sites. Patients can get access to data that you may not want them to see. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t want your mother to see something, don’t post it!
Strategies to Create and Manage the Optimal Online Reputation
#1: Start with a professional website. The website should serve as the hub of all your online activities. It should be professionally designed with your specific clientele in mind. The site should link to your other online activities such as your Twitter feed, LinkedIn profile, blog, and professional Facebook page. The website should highlight what you want your patients and potential customers to know about you.
#2: Respond to comments. If comments are left on a blog or on an MD review website, try to respond in a compassionate and thoughtful way. Suggest alternative points of view and possible solutions in a respectful, calm, and thoughtful manner. Always take other opinions into consideration, and do not just dismiss them as incorrect or irrelevant. Your responses give you a chance to present another side of the story without confrontation. If you are dealing with a patient complaint, try to identify the patient and have your practice administrator contact them through the practice privately in order to deal with their concerns. Often, patients and customers who do complain want recognition and to know that they matter and that we care.
#3: Remain diverse and don’t get stale. When developing and managing an online reputation, diversity is key. Don’t just focus on one outlet such as Twitter or Facebook. Search engines such as Google are constantly updating how they “hit,” and by spreading your presence over several social media networking outlets and frequently updating your website and blog, you increase your visibility. Make sure you have an active presence on several different types of sites. Frequent updates are critical to success.
#4: Engage in online communities. Participation in websites that are “patient communities” is very important. Your involvement in patient-led forums and groups keeps you grounded and allows you to better understand what is important to patients with a particular disorder or disease. For me, involvement and participation in the ICD Users Group has been a wonderful learning experience and has helped me improve the way I approach ICD patients in my practice. In addition, participation in professional online communities can help to boost your online reputation and increase your recognition as an expert.
#5: Google yourself. In order to successfully manage your online reputation, you must be aware of what is being said about you in cyberspace. I and other experts suggest using several different search engines to Google yourself on a bimonthly basis. Use different parts of your name in the searches, such as including a middle name or initial, or just using your first and last name, in order to pick up the most hits. If you find negative information, carefully analyze the site and the source. If appropriate, respond in a calm, professional way online. The last thing you want to do is create a cyber spat — this will only draw attention to misinformation.
Medicine and the delivery of care are rapidly changing. The Internet has provided both patients and physicians with instantaneous information, feedback, and opportunity. As physicians, we must embrace the fact that our patients and our potential customers use the Internet for screening and evaluation of providers as well as to gain information about their particular medical conditions. It is essential that today’s physician develops his or her own digital/online reputation now. Put your best cyber-foot forward. It is a top priority for me — my digital footprint has opened many doors and provided new opportunities to educate and serve patients both at home and across the world.
Kevin R. Campbell, MD, FACC is with Wake Heart and Vascular (WHV) in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also Assistant Professor at UNC Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, and Director of Electrophysiology at Johnston Health. In addition, Dr. Campbell is President of K-Roc Consulting, LLC.
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