Are Doctors Using Social Media?

A question I hear frequently from clients is, “Do doctors really use social media professionally?” Pharmaceutical marketers want to know whether they should consider investing in the medium.

Defining Doctors’ Use of Social Media

First let’s define social media in the professional realm for physicians. It means using social tools to advance clinical knowledge, communication or care; it doesn’t include posting a child’s birthday party photos on Facebook. It can be active, such as blogging or creating a LinkedIn profile, or passive, such as following people on Twitter without ever commenting or posting.

Physicians Are Getting Social

As a data geek, I always look to the numbers first to get a sense of what’s going on. Kantar Media tracks digital usage among general and specialty physicians. Among their panel of doctors, 42% report using some form of social media for clinical purposes. A study published last year in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that about 24% of physicians were using social media daily (often several times a day) to scan or explore medical information. Doximity, a closed physician community that often calls itself “LinkedIn for doctors,” recently announced that they reached 160,000 members, which equates to about 20% of the U.S. physician population. (Read my prior review of Doximity here.)

A qualitative indicator is the number of publications issued of late trying to help doctors navigate the social media landscape. The American College of Physicians released a policy paper in April on maintaining a professional online demeanor, complete with a table outlining the benefits, pitfalls and recommended safeguards for various activities. Dr. Kevin Pho, well-known for his blog KevinMD, recently published a 300-page book titled Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices.

ZocDoc, a pioneer in online appointment scheduling between providers and patients, issued a white paper titled Marketing for Healthcare Providers: A Primer for the Digital Age this past February. The white paper details the range of digital options available to doctors and provides guidance on selecting the most appropriate ones. Best of all, ZocDoc’s paper provides an interactive ROI calculator to quantify the value of engagement. Value is the key — a doctor must see a return on the time he or she invests in social media for it to become a steady part of his or her professional life.

How Exactly Do Physicians Use Social?

There are already some who see social media’s power in improving peer communication, patient education and clinical knowledge. Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, known to many as SeattleMamaDoc, is a huge believer in using social media to provide accurate, medically valid content from a real doctor. She wrote on iHealthBeat recently, “Blogging, joining Twitter, posting videos on YouTube, networking on LinkedIn and listening online was the beginning of the epiphany I had for one-to-many communication. There was a thirst for practical, on-time health advice online, and I could reach thousands.” Cardiologist Wes Fisher uses his blog to cover medical meetings and highlight important scientific advancements. Writing about the recent Heart Rhythm Society meeting, he noticed that more doctors were using social media and predicted that it would “continue to play an important role in sharing, reporting, and explaining the science of discovery as well as the coordination of physician voices in our evolving health care world to come.”

Social Media’s Value Proposition

Perhaps history tells us what is in store. Fifteen years ago, the questions were, “Will doctors ever use the Internet? In the office? Related to patient care?” Plenty of authorities emphatically said no.

Here we are in 2013, and virtually every physician office in the U.S. is online, with the vast majority of physicians using computers, tablets and smartphones throughout the day. Why? Because all of these tools enhance doctors’ professional lives. They deliver value.

So when clients ask us whether doctors really use social media professionally, we answer, “Some do. Some don’t. Yet.”

We know the same is true for many pharma companies. As we help our clients navigate regulatory concerns and platform choices, we are mindful that whatever they do in the social space must deliver value to patients and physicians. For us, the bigger question is: “Where are the opportunities for pharma companies to use social media to best connect — and most of all, provide value — to physicians?”

As the value of social media becomes more clear and increases for both physicians and pharmas, so, too, will its use.