Social Media: Physician Bane or Benefit?

Six Reasons to Use Social Media

By: Linda Harder

While some physicians have embraced social media, many still fear, misunderstand, or underuse it. Two Maryland physicians and Kevin Pho, M.D., a social media guru, discuss how physicians can make social media work to their benefit.

A Definition

What is social media?  According to Chris Boyer, director of digital marketing at INOVA Health System, social media is user-generated content, two-way participation that is transparent. “I use social media to build trust.  It’s how we connect, not why we connect.” The vehicles used in social media are growing and morphing continuously, but the best-known ones include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus, blogs, and now Pinterest.

Like email, billboards and print ads, social media is simply another communication vehicle. Yet what distinguishes it is its participatory and inclusive nature that creates a two-way conversation. In social media, physicians cannot prevent negative feedback and they cannot use an overt sales approach.

Social media can be time consuming, overwhelming and not intuitive for many medical professionals.  However, it can also save time and facilitate information sharing. Our experts suggest six ways to use social media to your benefit.

1. Online Reputation Management

Kevin Pho, M.D., author of the blog KevinMD ( and arguably one of the best-known physicians in the social media arena, says, “Physicians are reluctant to use social media because they’re hesitant to be online.  Eric Topol, M.D., notes that it took 20 years for the stethoscope to be used after it was invented. Start slow and be comfortable online. Every doctor has to go at his or her own pace.

“Physicians need to take control of their online presence and manage what comes up when someone ‘Googles’ their name.  Doctors are afraid of negative reviews,” he continues. “As a start, I recommend that they take 15 minutes to create a simple LinkedIn profile. It puts them in control and typically comes up first in a Google search.”

2. Continuing Medical Education

LinkedIn groups and Twitter are two key ways to stay abreast of the tsunami of available medical information. Dr. Pho notes, “Twitter can help physicians keep up with the medical literature.  It’s a fantastic tool for filtering and curating data. Physicians should follow the thought leaders.”

Christopher L. Runz, D.O., urologist at Shore Comprehensive Urology, agrees.  “I use Twitter to make sense of what I do and keep up to date in urology. In addition to reading journals, I use Twitter and a number of mobile apps on my iPad. I can access the latest information quickly.  On Twitter, no one will follow you if you’re not relevant. Your Tweets have to provide value.  I re-tweet things that are pertinent and valuable, adding comments. If you’re cautious, start with a private account and approve who follows you, though that slows your learning curve.”

“I think Twitter is easier than Facebook to catch up on and follow because it’s concise,” contributes Steve R. Daviss, M.D., DFAPA, chair of psychiatry at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. “I first heard about the Celexa warnings that way. It’s bite sized so it’s easy to read, and there’s usually a link to follow. I also use Google Plus, which is a good way to build networks with targeted groups.  It’s almost like a list serve.” –

Dr. Runz advocates that physicians, “Just listen at first. Follow a few accounts such as Eric Topol, M.D., Kevin Pho, M.D., and well-known physicians in your specialty. Learn what hash tags are. Then you’ll begin to understand how you can join the conversation.” He joined, a HIPPA-compliant, encrypted social media site for physicians.  “They perform background checks and doctors can comment on healthcare information, discuss challenging cases and receive feedback from other physicians.  It’s a blend of Twitter and Facebook.”

Dr. Daviss is more cautious about using doximity ( – a professional networking tool exclusively for physicians and health care professionals. “I used it when it first came out but was taken aback by the fact that they built their lists via medical school yearbooks. I use LinkedIn, where you can establish a private group. For example, the American Psychiatric Association has nearly 2000 members in its LinkedIn group. Members discuss everything from clinical issues to social medicine and healthcare reform.”

Physicians can also join Twitter chats.  Visit to view a schedule of upcoming chats.

3. Healthcare Policy Advocacy

These physicians believe that social media can help doctors advocate for appropriate healthcare policy and be heard above the noise. “Social media is a launch pad for me to be heard by the general media,” comments Dr. Pho.

Dr. Daviss concurs. “I use social media to educate myself about new laws such as the ACA and determine how they affect my practice. It’s a good way for physicians to get involved in the health policy debate.  If we don’t, the decisions get made by non physicians.”

4. Patient Education

“We know patients are using social media,” says Dr. Pho. “It’s a great way to dispel myths and guide patients to appropriate data online. Social media amplifies the opportunity for sharing reputable healthcare information.”

Ed Bennett, director, Web and Communications Technology at University of Maryland Medical System, agrees.  “Studies show that patients want more social media. They’re comfortable with having physicians on social media, but doctors think they aren’t. A recent survey showed that 61% of consumers trust physician information online, and they’re using social medicine to seek a second opinion or cope with a chronic condition.”

“As a doctor in 2012 with dramatic changes occurring, it’s critical we use technology to engage patients,” Dr. Runz adds. “CMS has essentially said to doctors that we have to provide high quality care that has value by engaging our patients. Social media is one way to do that effectively. I recently put a video on active surveillance for low-grade prostate cancer on our practice’s Facebook site that convinced an older patient to reconsider his treatment options. Better informed patients are easier to take care of.”

Podcasts have proven to be a fun and effective way for Dr. Daviss and two colleagues to disseminate mental health information to both professionals and the lay public.  “We get together for three hours and record a podcast called My Three Shrinks ( instead of hanging out at a restaurant. For us it’s fun and we get good feedback. You have to hit people in a way that’s interesting and relevant.”

Some physicians are making “hip” online videos as a way to actively engage people in their health.  An example is Z Dogg MD (, a physician who has created multiple videos, including one that promotes testicular self-exams using humorous lyrics to the tune of Man in the Mirror. That tongue-in-cheek approach may not work for most doctors, but it’s more likely to engage young men than a dry article.

5. Patient Support Groups

Private online support groups, often based on Facebook, are springing up to help people with a wide variety of diseases.  Dr. Runz is starting a support group for patients newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, to help them share treatment side effects, experiences and more. “They don’t have to wait for a monthly meeting,” he states. “It’s another tool to connect with other patients experiencing the same issues.  Another example is a private Facebook site Ed Bennett created for UMMC trauma patients, where they can open up to each other about their experiences and recovery.”

6. Practice Marketing

Social media does not typically lend itself to an old-school advertising approach. “However, physicians who use it wisely can get new patients,” notes Dr. Daviss. “Howard Luks, an orthopedic surgeon who has created numerous online educational videos, now gets about half of his referrals through social media.  But that evolved because he repeatedly provided useful information to patients, not because he was selling anything.”

Dr. Runz sums up the rationale for learning to use this new tool. “Social media now pervades everything. Think of Amazon and its product reviews. I use social media to learn, stay current and disseminate valuable information.”


Steven R. Daviss, M.D., DFAPA, is chair, department of psychiatry, Baltimore Washington Medical Center and author of the blog Shrink Rap.

Kevin Pho, M.D. is author of the blog KevinMD,, a frequent national speaker and one of the best-known physician users of social media.

Christopher L. Runz, D.O., is a urologist at Shore Comprehensive Urology.

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