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How can physicians manage their online persona? KevinMD offers guidance

Kevin Pho, MD, an internal medicine physician who founded and writes for the extremely popular blog KevinMD (and regularly tweets), is well-positioned to talk with physicians about social media. He recently authored a book offering doctors guidance in managing their online reputations, and I had the opportunity to talk with him about the issues.

In your mind, what is the No. 1 mistake physicians make when it comes to managing - or perhaps not managing - their online reputation?

The biggest mistake physicians can make is ignoring their online reputation, or downplaying its relevance. Whenever a new patient comes to me, I normally ask how they found me. Ten to fifteen percent say it’s because of my online presence, through my blog, Twitter or LinkedIn page, which came up when they Googled me. This scenario is happening nationwide. According to Pew Internet, 44 percent of patients are looking online to research their physician, and 1 in 5 are using online physician rating sites.

If physicians don’t take steps to control what shows up on a Google search, others will control how doctors appear online. It could be a negative patient review. A blog post from a disgruntled staff member. Or a news or television story that paints a doctor in a negative light. Physicians need to take proactive steps to establish and manage their online reputation. Soon, it will be as important as their reputation in the community.

Robert Wachter, MD, wrote in his forward to your book that physicians “can no longer afford to be passive observers of our online persona?” How would you recommend that doctors get started with managing their online presence?

Doctors already have a presence online, but most don’t know it yet. If doctors Google themselves, they likely will already have a profile from an online physician rating site. And in many cases, these profiles are filled with advertisements, or worse, negative patient reviews or inaccurate contact or board certification information. The price of passivity is being defined online by someone else.

There are powerful, free tools that doctors can use to take control of their online presence. A social media platform, like LinkedIn or a Google profile, for instance. And physicians don’t have to spend a lot of time on social media. Doctors are busy, and I understand that they have varying comfort levels when it comes to being visible online. Some are hesitant at embracing that level of transparency. To this group, I recommend spending 15 minutes to set up a LinkedIn profile. Get used to being online. Similar to an online resume, physicians can use LinkedIn to list professional experiences and their educational background. That time spent will be tremendously powerful, as LinkedIn profiles gets ranked high on a Google search and can push down the relevance of online physician review sites.

And once physicians get comfortable with being online, they can embrace other social media platforms, like blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Not only do they have tremendous utility in connecting with colleagues and educating patient, it can expand a doctor’s “digital footprint,” and put them in greater control of how they appear online.

An increasing number of adults use the Internet to find health information (and potentially self-diagnose) and to find physicians. How has that affected – and how *should* it affect – the way physicians do their business?

Absolutely. Healthcare has become more transparent, and that trend will only grow. Consider how online reviews have disrupted other service industries, like restaurants and hotels. Healthcare will inevitably be next.

Transparency will push physicians to be more patient-centered. For instance, many online reviews complain about issues like wait times, not following up on results, not enough parking, or physicians starting at the laptops rather than looking at patients. And reading these reviews have spurred changes in my own practice. I ensure that patients get a raw copy of their lab data within a week. I make sure I have same-day appointments available. I don’t even bring a laptop into the exam room anymore, because I want to look at patients in the eye when I’m taking to them.

Transparency gives patients the opportunity to give feedback to doctors, and it’s up to the medical industry to improve based on that feedback. Soon they’ll have little choice: Patient satisfaction will now, in part, affect Medicare hospital payments. Better to be proactive and improve the patient experience now, than to be reactive and do so after a poor patient online review.

You’ve said before that “getting online and helping patients navigate through the trove of health information on the web is a new physician responsibility for the 21st century, like it or not.” Aside from the practical reasons for getting online, which you discuss in the book, do you think physicians have a moral responsibility to do this?

According to Pew Internet, 72 percent of online patients are researching their health on the web. It’s the third most popular activity after email and using a search engine. Unfortunately, the Internet suffers from two problems: 1) there’s too much data available, and 2) not all of what we read on the web is reliable.

Physicians can address the first issue by being information curators: filter only the best information to patients. Leverage expertise to interpret what patients find on the web.

Next, doctors need to refute inaccurate health information on the web. The Internet is the great democratizer of information, as it can place those who spout inaccurate health information equal to scientists who’ve been doing this their entire lives.

You can read a commentary on vaccines, for instance, written by a celebrity on the Huffington Post that may be factually inaccurate, but it will be tremendously influential. Why? Because millions of patients read the Huffington Post. Physicians can only dream of those types of readership numbers.

Doctors need to get online and either guide patients to medically reputable sources of health information, or generate that information themselves. If we don’t, we risk losing relevance as medical authorities, as more patients go online to get their health information.

The book argues not only what physicians shouldn’t do online, but also what they must do. And one of those responsibilities is to educate patients on the web.

You were an early adopter of social media. When did you first realize how important social media could be to physicians, and how have things changed since then?

A few years ago, I had a plaintiff attorney write a post on, talking about medical malpractice. Of course, it generated a firestorm of comments, not only from doctors, but also patients and other lawyers as well.

In fact, it was a patient’s comment that caught my eye. He wrote, “ is the only site on the web where you could get patients, lawyers and doctors together in one place and discuss a contentious issue like medical malpractice.”

The ability to share perspectives is key to fixing our broken health system. Patients tell me that they learn so much from reading the physician stories on my site. They have no idea of the obstacles many doctors face when trying to practice medicine, or the burnout that many in the profession are facing.

On the flip side, I also post patient stories. And many doctors have no idea what it’s like to be a patient. Most doctors don’t have the conditions that their patients have, or take the medications they prescribe, or face the bureaucratic hurdles that patients face. Hearing these stories from a patient perspective is tremendously enlightening for physicians.

Social media is a powerful tool for the stakeholders in health care to share their stories, and come together. Health reform cannot be dictated by politicians or policy experts who’ve never step foot in an exam room. It has to come from doctors and patients on the frontlines of health care. And that means they have to be on the same page. Social media makes that happen.

Previously: 33Charts’ Bryan Vartabedian talks about physician blogging, A guide to the social web for physicians, Physician urges colleagues to think twice before they tweet, Physician 2.0: Do doctors risk becoming irrelevant if they ignore social media? and KevinMD: Doctors should help patients navigate health information
Photo by chispita_666

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