The benefits and risks of social media for Healthcare professionals

When I recently attended (via the live link) the HCPC launch of their new professional standards there was one change that produced the most questions and audible angst.

Social media and networking websites

2.7 You must use all forms of communication appropriately and responsibly, including social media and networking websites.

The HCPC panel gave a strong case for the benefits of social media and encouraged registrants to engage but with the usual professional caveats used in any communications.

For GOsC registrants social media use is encompassed in standard D17 – Uphold the reputation of your profession through your conduct.

I thought it would be worthwhile looking at the benefits of social media as well as highlighting some of the cautions. I’m well aware that writing about the benefits of social media on a blog and publicising the blog through social media is probably speaking directly to those already engaged. Having said that though, social media is a vast medium and the more you engage and use it you find that you are taken in different directions through connecting and reading various resources and then suddenly another group or network opens up.

What is social media?

Social media encompasses a large array of networking tools. The staples are facebook, twitter and linkedin but there are also Pintrest, Google Plus, Snapchat, Youtube, Vimeo etc etc and I’m sure it could encompass blogs and podcasts too.

I’m not going to go into the details of what each of these tools are and their pros and cons. There are loads of articles detailing this on the internet. You can also find lots of help and guides to getting started using any of the social media tools.

What are the benefits of using social media?

There are benefits for practitioners in terms of professional development as well as business development so I will discuss these separately.

Professional Development

There are many different professional development opportunities from social media – in no particular order:

  • Connect with researchers, lecturers, and experts

Through social media you can have access to the thoughts of some wonderful professionals. Many freely share their research and thinking and actively engage in discussions. You will be made aware of evidence based practice, courses that are available, areas of development in other similar professions. You will witness some engaging professional discussions and debates. Keep up to date with where research and practice are heading.

  • Follow conferences

Often when a conference is taking place there will be someone tweeting from that conference, sharing key information points.

  • Professional bodies

Many of the professional bodies share information on twitter and facebook so it is a good way to keep up with what’s happening in your profession

  • Discussion groups

There are many forums and professional discussion groups – on facebook and linkedin. Joining them will enable you to engage in professional debate on policy, practice and philosophy. Many professions have tweet hours where discussions take place under a particular #hashtag. These can be a good opportunity to engage in debate on a key issue or simply engage with other professionals.

  • Network/engage

Social media is an opportunity to network with colleagues – people you trained with, people who work in your neighbourhood etc. Many practitioners work in isolation so it is good to connect with other practitioners and share experiences, see what direction practices are going in, share information etc. etc.

Business benefits

  • Marketing

Social media offers you a wonderful marketing opportunity for free. You can connect with individuals and businesses in your area and promote your services (N.B. take note of the cautions below) You can showcase your practice, what you do, how well you do it etc. You can gain respect as an expert in your field. Being active on social media is a means of improving the ranking of your website on search engines too – speak to your web-developer

  • Understand public concerns

Connecting with people enables you to understand their health concerns. Look at the questions they are asking with regard to pain, treatment, access to services etc. You can then target your posts to address those concerns.

  • Connect with business services

Some businesses only market themselves on social media. There are a whole host of business services and free advice available to you. You will find a lot of marketing advice, website design advice and general practice promotion experts who are very active on social media.

  • Health education

Most practitioners have a concern to improve health. Through social media you can freely spread health information and health promotion information. You may be able to have an influence for good on someone’s health miles away from your practice through sharing your expertise. You will also gain respect as an expert in your field and a concern for health improvement.

  • Connect with ‘competitors’

Engaging with local practitioners and health professionals is a means of finding out what the expertise are in different local practices. This may be the means of making or receiving referrals to ensure patients receive effective treatment. Patients will respect you for your knowledge of the local ‘health scene’. Many of them will have done their research before choosing to visit you.

That highlights many of the benefits of engaging in social media but I feel it only just scrapes the surface and I’m sure you could list many more ways that social media has benefited you.

What Cautions do I need with Social Media?

Having described the enormous benefits of social media I must emphasise the caution that you need too. When you use social media you are still a health professional – all the time – and you must behave in the same manner as you would in all your professional engagements.

  • Sharing information

Always remember that everything you share is available in the public domain and remains there for a long time. Even with the best of privacy settings and separating professional and private life you will find people can still see a lot of information about you, there always seems a way around privacy settings.

You must NEVER share confidential information about patients or colleagues. You must always behave within your professional standards and maintain good conduct including honesty, integrity, courtesy etc. Patient images should never be shared without written permission.

Be aware that the same rules for advertising apply to social media so you must only stick to the ASA list of conditions that can be advertised. You must also take care with endorsing products that may bring you a financial benefit. All the standards of professional conduct still apply when you are on social media.

  • Boundaries

You must maintain professional boundaries with your patients on social media as you would face to face. Regulatory bodies deem it inappropriate for you to make requests to connect with patients – the patient must come to you and it is best to only connect in a professional context i.e. the clinic pages, not personal. You can make patients aware you are on social media through your website or clinic literature but you must not pressurise patients to connect with you or communicate with you. You must be cautious not to behave or communicate in a manner that could be deemed inappropriate.   Inappropriate behaviour due to blurred professional boundaries is the source of many complaints.

Under data protection rules you must have permission for the way you use your patient’s data. You must not send newsletters or promotional materials to patients unless you have their permission to do so. There is now an ‘opt in’ culture with communication.

  • Conduct

Following on from what we have just discussed under boundaries, there is a need for care in your online conduct. Be careful with your language and critical thought expressed online. Remember it is very difficult to retract information once it has been posted.

Always think twice before you make responses, just as you would with writing a letter or email. Be aware that at times you may be exposed to negative feedback or debate so you need to be cautious in your public responses not to inflame situations or tarnish your profession.

  • Time

It is very easy to spend a lot of time on social media – this may well be a good investment of your time. In order to get the most out of engaging you have to communicate regularly on these networks. Many practitioners find it best to set aside units of time for social media so it does not become an onerous burden.

Be prepared

Mint will soon be producing a social media policy to help you in planning your social media engagement as a professional and practice. Discussing how you would like to engage with social media as a practice and individuals within the practice is important – do you want individuals to represent the practice? Should individuals make a statement to be clear they are representing their own views, not that of the practice or profession? What about product endorsements?

I haven’t mentioned the benefits of podcasts, blogs and youtube – that will make a good post for the future. I encourage you to participate in social media and reap the benefits that it brings. Start with a tool that you feel comfortable with and then see where the journey takes you as you learn and engage……

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