Physician 'promote thyself' through social media

5 minutes read time Categories: Locum, Medical Career 11/11/2011

LinkedIn recently came clean about its intention to be a prime player in the recruitment space and many are now adjusting to the fact that their LinkedIn profile is a defacto resume for all to see. Facebook is widely rumoured to be muscling in on this space soon. One group that seems to be avoiding, or ignoring, this growing trend is the medical profession. Could they be at risk of missing the boat and, if so, why?

I have been involved in communicating with doctors via the "latest technology" for nearly 20 years and whilst doctors are seldom the first to adopt new modes of communication they are usually somewhere in the leading pack. When it comes to social media they are conspicuously behind the curve.

Why should this be? Doctors are smart, well-educated and generally curious. They typically embrace anything that moves forward their ability to deliver better healthcare outcomes and new technology often drives this. Neither are doctors slow to promote their professional interests. Indeed doctors in the private sector can be amongst the most creative when it comes to acquiring a customer or referral base. Surely social media would be an attractive new tool?

I have spoken with quite a few doctors recently about their views on social media and have drawn a few conclusions. Firstly, doctors are all too aware of what is going on, certainly with regards to Facebook and Twitter (strangely LinkedIn is the least known of the big three given its professional slant). Many even have accounts as part of an early effort to find out what it is all about. What seems to cause the fingers to freeze over the keyboard is that doctors typically have a strong desire to protect their privacy, or at least to maintain some professional distance, from patients.

Medicine has always been a closed profession. The contemporary internet age threatens this position of professional detachment. Patients come armed with wads of print outs from health websites and strong opinions about their own diagnosis. They talk to each other online about the competency and relative charms of doctors they have visited. They voice their complaints and air their grievances online. Such openness sits uneasily with the medical profession.

Enter social media. It is bad enough that patients say what they want in public. The average doctor lives in fear of having their private lives and personal thoughts exposed. Social media, by its very nature necessitates users to show the "real" person. The average doctor pulls up short of joining in the big online social experiment for fear of what it might mean for their professional reputation.  Doctors are also increasingly subject to litigation and unwanted media attention when things go wrong. Why fuel the fire with a regrettable tweet or photo?

It is a shame, and a concern, that doctors feel so inhibited online. Social media is here to stay and will continue to evolve in ways few can predict, though increased professional use is inevitable. It offers enormous potential as a way of improving networks of communication and as a collaboration tool  -  something all doctors should be excited about. The further behind the curve you are the harder it is to catch up, and clinicians run the risk of being left behind.

I understand why doctors are concerned but there are some well established rules of social media for staying out of trouble. Here are a few starting points:

  • Think before you write - once it is out there you can't bring it back
  • Manage your own reputation - before others manage it for you
  • Don't be afraid to appear human - there is plenty of evidence that litigation risk diminishes if the patient knows and likes the doctor
  • Understand privacy settings - before you say anything in public understand who will see it
  • Protect the confidentiality of others - that includes patients, colleagues and employers
  • Start slow and build consistently as your confidence grows - like all things new it is scary but worth persisting

It is hard to know if doctors will catch up in the near future. It is likely that the next generation of doctors will feel much more comfortable having grown up as medical students on Facebook so this may just be a temporary lag.

Ultimately for most it is more of a paradigm shift than a technological one that is required.

Dr John Bethell

Director, Wavelength International

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Post your comment


  • Julia Buckley 11/11/2011 6:40pm (7 years ago)

    Hi Dr Bethell,

    I am a fan of this blog, this is a very real and very effective way of self or business promotion and you have provided some very useful tips for novice users. My father is in the stock-market and he was one of the skeptics when it came to social media. He was concerned about that it might 'de-professionalise' him and quite the contrary. He can now keep in touch with colleagues overseas, and keep up to date with market trends. He even bought himself a smartphone so he could carry this information in his pocket!

    So get on board doctors and other professionals, don't get left behind in this progressive world of social media!

    Julia Buckley.

  • jbethell66 11/11/2011 6:45pm (7 years ago)

    Thanks Julia

    As a doctor myself (albeit non-practicing) I draw much from my own initial skepticism about social media but the more I use it the more comfortable I feel and the more benefit I see. Aside from that I find it increasingly fascinating.

  • Jennifer Cornell 13/11/2011 12:46am (7 years ago)

    Great sharing and very true. I have been contemplating the same thing as I recently went to face book and linked to start to have a presence. I found that none of my colleagues responded. I certainly understand the need for privacy but maybe it is time for us as doctors to come down out of our ivory towers and become part of the social media. We are human and can share this with our patients. I like to have my private life and have lived in many small towns where it was hard to do this at times. But we also must be part of our communities. It is a balance that we need to find. I feel that we as doctors have separated ourselves to much and now we need to find a way back into the public which feels comfortable for us. I for one am working to embrace linked, so thank you.

  • jbethell66 13/11/2011 10:01pm (7 years ago)

    Thanks Jennifer

    I can certainly relate to your "none of my colleagues responded" comment. I have persisted for nearly three years now and it is amazing who eventually comes out of the cone of silence to engage with you - even some sworn skeptics. Stick with it and I'm sure you will find the same over time.

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