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Leverage social media to build your practice

Follow this advice, and your patients just may “like” you more.

Website, check. Facebook page, check. Twitter and Instagram — mmm, maybe.

When it comes to the Internet, chances are good that your practice is at least out there.

But are you making the most of the web and social media to connect with your current — and prospective — patients? Do you wonder if, and how, you can leverage their power even more than you already do — or don’t?

Many ophthalmologists wrestle with how to make the most of their Internet presence, however big or small it may be. The good news is that you have many ways to use your website and social media to help lift your practice to a higher level of success. All it takes is the will to face down your concerns and follow some common sense rules of the information superhighway.

REASONS FOR SOCIAL (MEDIA) ANXIETY

When considering how to use social media to interface with patients, many ophthalmology practices have a fair degree of hesitation, says Steven M. Christiansen, MD, an ophthalmologist in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We are all familiar with the social media blunders and resulting public affairs nightmares that are published online when an employee or practice posts something irresponsible and foolish. This fear keeps many practices from adopting social media.”

“There are a number of reasons why practices are underutilizing social media,” says Matthew Weed, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist with the Spokane (Wash.) Eye Clinic. First, a practice may wonder whether the return on investment from a social media profile is worth it. Second, the practice may be unsure what kinds of content posts are legal, ethical or both. And third, Dr. Weed says, “some practices may not [realize] it is even an option.”

To be sure, ophthalmology practices and organizations have Facebook pages and other accounts. Several academic institutions, as well as a handful of social media-savvy ophthalmologists, have Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“Instagram has a nice EyeRounds account from the University of Iowa, as well as some individual ophthalmologists’ accounts,” Dr. Weed says. The AAO also has an account that hosts EyeSmart, a resource for eye-care professionals and patients alike.

The do’s and don’ts of social media

In raising your profile on social media, be careful about how and what you post. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Do obtain patient consent for all patient images. “If you are going to post a patient’s picture, get informed consent,” Dr. Christiansen says. In addition, “be aware of the background in the photos, such as an operating room white board, a computer monitor or a document on the table.” These can reveal other patient information, inadvertently putting you in violation of HIPAA patient privacy provisions.
  • Do use a variety of media. “Photos and videos are more interesting, and your traffic will reflect that,” Dr. Christiansen says.
  • Do respond when people engage with you. “If someone leaves a positive comment on your post, thank them warmly,” Dr. Christiansen says. However …
  • Don’t fight fire with fire. If someone posts something negative, be sure to respond quickly and neutrally, Dr. Christiansen says. “Apologize, thank them for bringing the issue to your attention and give them a direct phone number so they can call to discuss the issue further.” Dr. Weed agrees. “The very worst thing you can do is put on your armor and respond in kind,” he says. “It will make you look petty and unprofessional, and will only attract more attention.” Whatever you do, though, don’t let negative comments go unaddressed. “That is a huge red flag,” he says.
  • Don’t offer medical advice. Dispensing medical advice via social media is always a big no-no, Dr. Christiansen says.
  • Don’t leave the store unattended. “A neglected social media account will wither into oblivion,” says Dr. Weed. “An account with no recent activity won’t be nearly as visible, and when people do find it, stumbling across a ‘ghost town’ account won’t exactly make them want to come see you in clinic.”

Unfortunately, these represent the exception rather than the rule, Dr. Weed says. He and Dr. Christiansen agree virtually all ophthalmology practices could benefit from cultivating a more active Internet presence beyond the obligatory practice website — and they should.

WHY TO GET SOCIALLY ACTIVE

For one thing, “our patients are online,” Dr. Weed says. Whether it’s a young couple looking for help with their daughter’s strabismus or a 55-year-old man trying to figure out why his vision is blurry, most people today turn first to the internet for medical information. “If your practice has high-quality, current information available on social media, that will help catch the attention of these prospective patients and lead them to your practice’s website,” he says.

Scott E. LaBorwit, MD, an ophthalmologist who owns and operates Select Eye Care in Towson, Md., admits he was “against even setting up a website 10 years ago.” Now, he says a strong online presence is vital to fully engaging current and prospective patients — and their caregivers.

“You might look at your 80-year-old patients and say, ‘Oh, they’re not going to go on Facebook, I don’t need to be on it,’” Dr. LaBorwit says. “But it’s the caregiver who knows her elderly mother or father needs cataract surgery who is going to be looking up surgeons online. Your audience isn’t just your patients.”

Another reason to cultivate your Internet presence: the flexibility and virtually unlimited opportunities it offers to promote your practice and communicate with and teach others about eye conditions and treatments.

Leveraging social media can help your patients become more knowledgeable about their eyes and eager to follow through with your treatment recommendations, says Dr. Christiansen. Depending on how your practice structures its social media approach, you can give your patients a glimpse into the “family” of doctors and staff that makes up your practice.

“In ophthalmology, we develop long-term relationships with patients,” Dr. Christiansen points out. By sharing just a very small glimpse into our staff and practice, we help strengthen those relationships.”

CREATIVE WAYS TO LEVERAGE SOCIAL MEDIA

There are many ways to leverage your website and social media accounts for fun and profit (both your patients’ and your own). Some ideas: Conducting Facebook polls, live-tweeting seminars and blogging on eye-care topics of interest to your patients. Also grist for the social media mill: posting before-and-after photos (with patient consent, of course — see “The do’s and don’ts of social media,” above), sharing commentary on or excerpts of lectures you attend or present, volunteerism efforts and the arrival of new employees.

“During the excitement leading up to the total solar eclipse in 2017, I made a video about the eclipse and the dangers of solar retinopathy,” Dr. Christiansen says. “The video has been shared more than 1,800 times, with many of those shares [made] by ophthalmology and optometry practices, and it has been viewed more than 100,000 times.”

Dr. Christiansen has also created and posted a video in which he answers 10 common questions about AMD.

Dr. Weed points to the pediatric ophthalmology Facebook page that he and his partner, Jeffrey Colburn, MD, maintain for The Spokane Eye Clinic. They post fresh content frequently and boast a “robust” following, consisting mostly of their patients.

“The content for posts includes information about common conditions, like amblyopia and strabismus, as well as less common but still serious topics such as a white pupil in a child or the potentially devastating effects of a Nerf dart eye injury,” he says.

With parents’ permission, they have also posted before-and-after-surgery pictures and even videos of kids putting on eyeglasses for the first time.

“We share similar content across other platforms, including Twitter and Instagram,” Dr. Weed says. “I also maintain my own professional website (www.mattweedmd.com ), which publishes blog-style information — chiefly about pediatric ophthalmology and inherited retinal disease. When someone in the public arena has an eye problem, I will often post a short piece about it. I also write about unusual cases I come across in clinic.”

Dr. LaBorwit also uses digital media to educate his patients — and, ultimately, their friends and family.

“We video-record the laser part of their cataract surgery and give that video to our patients at their one-week postop visit on a jump drive to show them how we did their surgery,” he explains. “As a result, they understand exactly what laser cataract surgery is, and they can post it themselves on Facebook or Instagram to show friends and family.” In this way, Dr. LaBorwit says, his patients become “ambassadors” for his practice, where laser-assisted cataract surgeries have grown from 20 per week to 50 per week in just the seven years since he began offering them.

“The growth is not all because of that, but it’s definitely contributed to the growth,” he says. Dr. LaBorwit also plans to set up a “blog room,” where he and his staff can record interviews with satisfied patients about their experience then post the recordings on the practice website and Facebook page.

“People want to be familiar with that experience [before they undergo the procedure themselves], and I think it will help get our name out into the community,” he says. “It reminds me of that shampoo commercial from back in the day, where ‘she told two friends, and they told two friends and they told two friends.’”

GOING DIGITAL BUILDS PRACTICE SUCCESS

Those interviewed strongly recommend that eye-care professionals plant, grow and maintain a presence on the Internet and social media. At the very least, Dr. Weed believes all ophthalmology practices should open a Facebook account — if one doesn’t already exist.

“Facebook may already have a ‘dummy’ account for your practice, without your even knowing it,” he says, explaining that Facebook permits anyone who doesn’t find an established Facebook page for a given business, including medical practices, to create a page, which can “appear quasi-official.”

“Subsequent Facebook users will be able to see this page, without your realizing it,” Dr. Weed says. “Claim your Facebook accounts!”

Instagram, he adds, is perfect for ophthalmologists because of its orientation toward the visual.

“You might consider sharing some of your best images in that format,” he says. “Social media can be a fun, effective and efficient means of teaching your patients and building your practice.” OM