By day, Michael Sevilla, MD, is a family physician in the small northeastern Ohio town of Salem, about 20 miles west of the Pennsylvania border. But at night, between visits, and during his lunch break, he's "Dr. Anonymous," posting updates to his blog of the same name, checking his Facebook page and Twitter feed, or recording his latest Web-based radio show.
Sevilla launched his blog in 2006, but he's far from anonymous anymore—on his blog he posts photos and videos of himself that he's made, as well as footage from his many local TV appearances. He's kept the pseudonym because the name just stuck, he says.
Although an online pioneer among community-based physicians, Sevilla is now just one of many doctors who have ventured online to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to market their practices and reinforce a positive doctor-patient relationship outside the office. More than 60% of U.S. physicians are either actively using social media networks or are interested in doing so, according to a Manhattan Research survey published last year.
"It's something I have a passion for," Sevilla says. "Trying to balance it all out has been challenging, but it's been really gratifying."
Some physicians' experience with Facebook and Twitter may be limited to what their children or other family members or friends have shown them, or they may have a personal Facebook page to connect with family and friends. There are approximately 150 million Facebook members in just the United States; chances are a lot of those users are your patients or potential patients.
We talked with social networking physicians and consultants about why social networking, namely the 2 most popular sites, Facebook and Twitter, can be effective, how physicians should approach the sites, and what types of content they should publish to the world.
IN THE BEGINNING...
Apart from their practice Web sites, many doctors' early presence on the World Wide Web was similar to Sevilla's, through blogs, sometimes anonymous, where they shared observations about healthcare and anecdotes from their personal and professional lives. Although these blogs were a creative outlet for the doctor, they didn't do much for the practice, especially if the physician kept his or her identity hidden.
Other social networking sites have gained popularity before it, but Facebook has emerged in the last 2 years as the dominant personal social networking site for Americans of all ages. It is the second most visited Web site in the country behind Google, according to Alexa Internet, which measures Web traffic.
In October, the Ohio State Medical Association (OSMA) released a toolkit, "Social Networking and the Medical Practice," which offers sample guidelines and best practices for doctors' interactions with patients online. The toolkit offers rules that a practice could include in its own employee handbooks for an acceptable online presence, says Nancy Gillette, general counsel for the OSMA.
"We have received many questions from physicians about social media best practices," she says. "While researching the issue, we realized that there are not a lot of resources for them to turn to in this area. We believe this toolkit, while it isn't a comprehensive guide nor does it substitute for legal advice, provides a much-needed resource."
A month later, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued its own set of recommendations for practices regarding social networking. Similar to OSMA's toolkit, the AMA urges physicians to "maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship when interacting with patients online and ensure patient privacy and confidentiality [are] maintained," and to "consider separating personal and professional content online."