Getting social: How to engage patients through Twitter and Facebook

Social media Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook are popular worldwide. Thanks to mobile phone applications, or “apps,” users access these sites throughout the day to share updates about their lives with their friends, family, and other contacts.


Aniruddha Malpani, MD “These are great new channels that allow doctors to communicate with patients. They also allow doctors to learn what their patients want. After all, doctor-patient communication is a two-way street.”
-Aniruddha Malpani, MD, medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India, and author of a physician and patient education blog


If you’re not familiar with these sites, Facebook allows members to set up a personal page where they can share information about themselves and their interests. Members can post text and photo updates about daily activities, share opinions, and post interesting articles and videos. These posts appear on a member’s Facebook “Wall,” which creates a running “Timeline” of updates and events.

Friends, family and colleagues can view a member’s Wall by being accepted as “Friends.” Once an account is established, members can limit the amount of information shared with the public with the site’s privacy settings. For example,[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] members can block anyone other than approved “Friends” from viewing updates, photos, and personal information.

Key Point: Twitter and Facebook are powerful forms of social media to communicate with patients and potential patients to position yourself as a subject matter expert. This primer provides you with how-to advice to get you started and explains how to keep your personal and professional communications separate.

To set up your page, go to Facebook.com, click on the green “Sign Up” button in the upper left corner and fill in the required information. From there, you’ll be asked to enter information about your life and photos. You can search for friends and family who also have Facebook pages.

Setting up a Facebook personal page can be useful from a professional standpoint, because you can “Friend” colleagues or “Like” various companies or medical societies that interest you, and you will see updates from them in your “News Feed.” If you want to set up a Facebook page to promote your medical practice, you should do so as a business page rather than a personal page (more on that below).

Twitter: Short and sweet

Twitter is also a social media site that allows you to share updates with friends, family, and other contacts over the Web. On Twitter, however, members only share short messages, called “tweets,” of 140 characters or fewer. Likewise, a Twitter profile does not contain a lengthy personal history and photos, but rather only a 140-character description of the member and one photo.

People whom you interact with on Twitter are called “Followers” (you can follow others, and they can follow you, to receive regular updates on each others’ tweets). If desired, you can set your account privacy settings so that your Followers (you can block anyone you want to) will be the only people permitted to read your messages, unless one of them “retweets” something you wrote for his or her Followers to see.

Using the privacy setting is a good idea if you don’t want all of your patients to be able to see what your personal tweets; however, you should keep your settings public if you are planning to use Twitter as a patient communication tool (specifics follow below).

To sign up, go to Twitter.com and look for the “New to Twitter?” box. Enter the required information and click on the yellow “Sign up for Twitter” button. Search for friends and family you would like to follow.

You can also follow healthcare-focused organizations of interest—including mdCurrent-India (Twitter name: @mdCurrent_India), for tweets focused on the latest business advice and clinical research, customized for Indian physicians.

Physician practice opportunities

As physicians, these sites can be valuable tools for sharing medical information and practice updates with patients or potential patients.

Aniruddha Malpani, MD, of the Malpani Infertility Clinic, in Mumbai, India, is an avid user of these sites. He educates patients on Facebook about IVF treatment and updates them about what’s new at his clinic. He also blogs every day on his clinic Web site. Each blog entry is posted to his Facebook Wall and as a tweet on his Twitter feed.

“This allows me to repackage content, and to reach out to more people very easily,” he says.

Facebook allows businesses, including medical clinics, to create commercial Facebook pages. These pages differ from the personal Facebook pages because they are focused on your medical practice rather than your personal life, friends, and family. The commercial Facebook pages allow your patients to indicate that they “Like” your practice (rather than becoming a “Friend” as with personal pages). When someone Likes your page, their endorsement is then shared with all of their Facebook friends. Facebook is an effective, free, word-of-mouth method to share general medical information and details about your practice without overtly marketing, which can help build your practice.

If you have a Twitter account that is open to your patients, you should make sure that all of your tweets are professional in nature, rather than personal, with a focus on patient education and healthcare news updates. You also have the option to have a personal Twitter account that activates your privacy settings so that you have to approve all Followers (in this case, you would not approve patients). Then you can start another Twitter account that is just for your clinic. That way, you can keep your personal and professional tweets separate.

Malpani says some technologically inclined doctors in India have started accessing these sites for their practice. “It’s still the early days,” he says. “Most people still use Facebook for personal reasons, rather than for professional purposes.”

Lalit Singh, MD, a consultant general surgeon in Gurgaon, India, frequently uses the sites, but keeps his interactions strictly personal. Any communication with his patients is face-to-face or by phone.

“Direct communication is always best,” he says. “I do not make ‘Friends’ with my patients.”

Connect with mdCurrent-India on Facebook and Twitter

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Malpani, however, does communicate with patients on these sites and over the Internet.

“These are great new channels that allow doctors to communicate with patients,” Malpani says. “They also allow doctors to learn what their patients want. After all, doctor-patient communication is a two-way street.”

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