I doubt there is a single physician or any other healthcare professional that hasn’t been told by a marketing consultant that she needs to get involved in social media. It’s hard to ignore the seemingly compelling statistics. “Facebook has over one billion users!” “Over six billion hours of video are viewed on YouTube every month!”

Unfortunately, many healthcare marketing experts never really explain to providers exactly why social media should be important to them and their practices. And worse, they often don’t demonstrate how to actually get started with these new channels of communication, like blogs, podcasts and Twitter.

Maybe you are a physical therapist or family medicine physician, and you want to dip your toe in the social media water, but you’re hesitant. Maybe you don’t know the difference between a Twitter handle and a hashtag, or maybe you’re worried about all the time social media will take.

From all of my talks on social media at medical conferences and from questions I receive through my website, I hear the same fundamental concerns.

Nurse writing blog post at a computer

Patients will leave negative comments about my practice and me.

I don’t want to discourage those of you worried about negative reviews any further, but patients can leave those comments now. Even if you don’t have a blog, patients can leave harsh reviews on Yelp, Angie’s List and many other sites.

Having a blog or Facebook and Twitter accounts increases the chance that those patients will leave their bad opinions on your platform. That prospect might sound bad, but it really isn’t.

First, you’re much more likely to learn about those reviews if they appear on your accounts or site. Second, it gives you the opportunity to respond. You have the opportunity — if you respond quickly and politely — to change the opinion of that patient and make a positive impression on many potential patients.

Plus, negative reviews are not nearly as common as we tend to fear. While approximately 80% of people research products online, only about 20% read reviews of healthcare professionals and treatments. And only 3% to 4% of adults have even left reviews of treatments, hospitals or healthcare providers online.

The public will find personal information (or those negative reviews).

To this concern, I have more bad news/good news. Once pictures of your children, your home address or your embarrassing high school photos are online, it is difficult to completely eliminate any trace of them. You also can’t stop them from appearing in Google search results.

You can influence Google search results when people are looking for information about you. If you have a blog with multiple categories, and if you add new content on a regular basis, you will rank higher than if you only have a static website. Additionally, Google seems to respect credible sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, so you should create accounts on each for search results at least. The information people find out about you on your blog and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is all content you created. In theory at least, that should be what you want the public to see.

If you want an example of search rankings, do a quick search for your name. What appears? Do you like what appears? Now search “Dr. David Geier” and see the difference. By the way, if you stopped to search, did you notice what you did? I’m willing to bet you stopped after looking through the first page of results. Very rarely do people go past the first page of results when they search Google for anything. Use a blog and social media accounts to push the personal information and negative reviews down where people are much less likely to find them.

Patients will expect answers to medical questions.

This concern manifests in two ways. One is a concern about the legal ramifications of discussing medical conditions online (see my next topic for my thoughts). The other aspect of this issue has more to do with boundaries. Many doctors fear patients will contact them through their sites or Twitter or Facebook and expect answers. Worse, those patients would expect those answers quickly.

Doctor responding to questions on social media

I think the question of boundaries for current patients is critical to decide before you start. There can be many benefits to choosing to interact with patients online. Examples include notifying patients of changes in office address or hours, offering answers to frequently asked questions and more. You might need to build in some kind of security system and ensure information gets into the patients’ medical records. Many doctors and groups have their sites set up to allow this interaction.

I choose not to use my blog or social media accounts for current patients. I make that clear on my contact page and in any answers I give if they do contact me. It is a personal decision that I feel is best for what I want to do online. Again, answer that question from the start.

Readers will ask for medical advice.

It’s true. As your platform grows, readers will ask you medical questions. I get 25 to 100 questions per week from all over the world. Almost all of those inquiring readers and listeners have seen an orthopaedic surgeon already, which suggests we need to do a better job of explaining injuries and illnesses in our offices.

Nevertheless, you should never offer specific medical advice to readers online in any form or forum — blog comments, email, Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else. You haven’t examined them or looked at their radiology or laboratory tests. You should emphasize that any information you give is intended for information and educational purposes only. Answer in general terms about those injuries. And stress that they should consult with their doctor for any specific medical questions or concerns.

I might accidentally say something inappropriate online.

I honestly believe this is more of a concern that hospitals, academic medical centers and medical organizations use to discourage individual providers from getting involved in social media than one from the physicians themselves. I don’t think it actually happens very often. There’s something about hitting “Send” or “Publish” that makes people think twice. As prominent pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, (better known as Seattle Mama Doc) has noted, doctors are more likely to get into trouble in the elevators at work than online.

Confidentiality and professionalism are essential online, without question. You can’t share a patient’s information without his permission. Social media is also not the place to vent about patients, other doctors or anyone else. Most readers will not know what you’re talking about, and the tone of your comments will only reflect poorly on you and your brand.

Having said that, a recent study published as a letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that only 3% of the tweets from physicians with more than 500 Twitter followers were found to be unprofessional. I suspect that if you studied the providers that really understand social media, it would be far less common.

I don’t have the time for social media.

This is by far the most common concern I hear. It can be expressed in different ways. Before I reframe the issue in a better way, let me address the time aspect.

First, you should decide what you are trying to achieve up front and align the strategies to get there with your available time. If you have 5 to 10 hours per week and want to share your thoughts on healthcare reform or explain various injuries and surgeries, you could start a blog. If you really only have 1 or 2 hours per week, maybe just sharing health articles on Twitter or Facebook is enough.

For those of you who truly believe you don’t have the time, I ask you to take one week and strictly document every single activity you do. Is that online research of players for your fantasy football team or the time spent on celebrity gossip really important? What about the local news? You’ll be amazed at how much time is wasted. Eliminate even a few of them — checking e­mail 10 times a day would be my first recommendation — and you will “create” time.

The better way to look at the time factor is a question about the return on investment of social media. Generally ROI is measured as benefitsminus the cost. Most people realize that social media is inexpensive. You can host a blog for less than $10 per month. Twitter and Facebook are free. However, you should consider time as a cost, too, and social media is not “free” in that sense.

Twitter and other concerns about social media

The problem with return on investment for social media is the difficulty of truly calculating the benefit. What is that Twitter follower or Facebook fan actually worth? What is the value of 1,000 people reading one of your blog posts? In that sense, time spent on social media might have no real financial value.

On the other hand, what if a healthy recreational soccer player reads your articles for months? She might not need your services now. However, if she tears her ACL in the future, her familiarity with your tone and quality of information might lead her to choosing you to perform her surgery. Or she might recommend you to her injured teammates. Or your local newspaper might hear about an injury prevention talk you gave to her team and decide to run a story about your program.

The benefits of social media from a healthcare marketing perspective are real, but they take time and effort. If you don’t get started, you’ll never see them.

For healthcare professionals, social media is time well spent.

Those of you on the fence about whether you should dip your toes in the social media water might feel that all of it has no real bearing on your practice. Admittedly, the time I spend doing it doesn’t help me perform ACL reconstructions or shoulder stabilizations any better. But it is important. Yes, it is important to our desires to grow our practices and develop our personal brands. But much more importantly, it matters to the public, which is increasingly turning to new channels for health information.

As physicians and healthcare providers, we have the opportunity — and, I would argue, the duty — to educate people of all ages and backgrounds. We can promote new and better ways to prevent injuries, treatments for illnesses and steps to improve health and well­being to a much broader audience than we can reach in our offices alone. That opportunity to improve people’s lives is easily worth the time and effort.

Note: A modified version of this post appeared as an article I wrote for Outpatient Surgery Magazine. Thank you to Dan O’Conner, Editor-in-Chief of Outpatient Surgery Magazine, for allowing me to share it here.