Social media is an attractive medical marketing strategy for most healthcare practices. The appeal of connecting with the community via a very affordable and easy-to-use platform makes it an ideal choice, but it often prompts a common question: how do you maintain business and privacy standards in such an open environment? In this realm of friends and followers, it is easy for healthcare providers to blur the lines by becoming engrossed in status updates, reviews, and conversational comments. When planning a social media marketing strategy, physicians must first and foremost understand where to draw the discretionary line between professionalism and patient privacy.

You have little control over what sort of information a patient chooses to share, but you have unlimited control over your response. If a patient posts a comment on your website stating something such as, “Thank you for seeing me at such short notice,” or “I love the LASIK procedure I had done at your office, Dr. Smith,” what do you say? You must be careful not to violate HIPAA regulations by publicly acknowledging that you have a relationship with the patient. An appropriate choice of response might be “Thank you for sharing” or “Thank you for the information.” If patient comments are posted somewhere other than an open forum – such as a newsletter or website testimonial section – have the patient sign a release. Getting consent in writing will ensure that you are HIPAA compliant and will increase patient satisfaction because it demonstrates your commitment to their privacy.

Remind patients to use caution because any piece of information on the Internet is available to the eyes of anyone in the world for an indefinite period. Remember that patients are not covered entities under HIPAA regulations. It is fine to encourage the sharing of stories on your website, but revealing personal information is always the patient’s choice and never yours.

One of the biggest mistakes healthcare providers (or those managing their social media accounts) make is responding back and forth on social media. This is particularly the case when negative reviews are posted as doctors feel the need to clarify the situation publicly. Rather than going back and forth with a patient over the Internet, take the conversation offline. It is perfectly fine to address the concern with a simple, “We take your comments seriously and would like to look into this further. Please call our office at 123-456-7890 to discuss this further.” If you have contact information for the patient, always call them and try to remedy the situation as soon as possible. Ask if they feel their concerns were addressed. If they do, be sure to ask them to remove their review or amend it.

Just as you must use discretion when handling patient information, you must always consider how each piece of shared information represents your business. Your presence in the social media world is as much a part of your reputation as your presence in life. Use discretion but also have fun. Social media is meant to be a fun way to share information, so enjoy it!