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Social media has been widely adopted across many industries as a vital component of any well-rounded digital marketing strategy, and physicians are rapidly joining the ranks. In fact, a recent study found that over 70% of primary care physicians and oncologists are now using social media to read and disseminate health information.

Many late adopters and even those who are currently active on social media, however, report some trepidation. Perhaps it’s a generation gap in “old school” doctors who aren’t hip to the new wave of technology. More likely, though, it’s a lack of knowledge about prudent and productive social media principles, and lingering fears about privacy and compliance, that’s to blame.

Here’s how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to social media practices, including two truths you can believe in, and an all-too-common myth to dispel once and for all!

Truth: Social Media Is More Than Just a Broadcast Tool

Long gone are the days when social media only acted as an outlet for mundane content like what’s for dinner! In fact, it’s no longer just about broadcasting content at all. Forbes has discussed a fundamental shift in the way people—and businesses—are using social media, saying now, more than ever before, users want to engage in meaningful conversation—especially when it comes to their health.

This enables physicians and providers using social media to originate two-way dialogue that creates value among patients, expands their brand identity, and inspires consumers to take action. Your job? Well, don’t make your social media efforts merely about what you say. Instead, also be keenly focused on listening and responding to what your followers say back.

Do your part by publishing social media content that’s timely and thought-provoking. Start conversations about pertinent topics like key risk factors for heart disease or diabetes; share new research and tips on disease prevention and healthy living habits; and provide insight on the changing healthcare model and its impact on patients and physicians alike. Continually monitor the response and capitalize on opportunities to further engage with your social media followers, as well as cultivate new content ideas for your blog, newsletter, and other digital marketing activities.

When used correctly, your social media outlets can become active and engaging online communities where members double as champions of your brand. Pay close attention to user questions and feedback and you may even gain insights you need to improve the patient experience. And an added bonus for physicians on social media? As many as 33% of physicians currently use social media to interact and even collaborate with fellow doctors and healthcare industry peers.

Truth: Healthcare Providers Must Develop Internal Social Media Policies

The ease of use and low- or no-cost nature of social media outlets means all you need is an account to get started, right?  Technically yes, but not so fast.  In a move that as many as seven in ten organizations are missing, you must first create and introduce internal policy guidelines about proper social media use. Remember: it’s not just your own social media activities you’re governing; it’s your employees’, too!

The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between business and personal interests on social media, and without question, employees represent you and your brand. So much so that controversial or offensive posts from them—even if not posted directly on your page—can have serious consequences right up to and including potential HIPAA violations.

It’s not practical to restrict or ban social media use by employees, but in structuring your internal guidelines for acceptable use, pay particular attention to these functional areas:

  • Transparency: Posts should not be published anonymously and, whenever possible, should reveal not only the poster’s identity, but also his or her role in connection to the provider.
  • Judiciousness: Protect patients’ names and identities at all times, and never publish patient photos without express prior approval. Also, be respectful at all times and do not post confidential or copyrighted material or information.
  • Correctness: Do not disparage the company, its patients, and fellow co-workers, and use an approved disclaimer if expressing personal opinions that are yours and not intended to reflect the views of the organization.

Lie: HIPAA and Regulatory Guidelines Act as Barriers to Your Social Media Strategy

While the importance of upholding HIPAA and regulatory guidelines must not be understated, one of the biggest misconceptions about healthcare providers and social media is that stringent compliance regulations interfere with the design and implementation of an effective social media strategy.

When done properly, social media is an invaluable tool for engaging with current and prospective patients, increasing brand awareness, and stimulating two-way dialogue about health-related topics. And although HIPAA violations could carry consequences such as fines, license revocation, and even criminal penalties, healthcare providers have several early lines of defense with the power to prevent the regulatory environment from becoming a barrier to entry and sustained success.

The first, of course, is having properly written policies and procedures that govern social media content, posting, and employee access and behavior; but the efforts mustn’t end there. Because social media and the healthcare industry are both constantly evolving, continual efforts to educate yourself and employees on HIPAA privacy and security regulations are also imperative.

As a result, hold briefings and educational exercises to have and maintain proper emphasis on social media policies and compliance initiatives, share performance metrics, and assess results. Share knowledge, learn from missteps, and build on successes, and you can help continually improve social media results and ensure compliance as part of a common initiative.