How to Conduct Consultations with Social Media Patients

For Seattle-based plastic surgeon Shahram Salemy, M.D., patient care doesn’t start in the operating room or even during a consult, but rather, from the moment a potential patient makes contact, whether it’s via phone, email or social media. That approach has earned him a slew of patient testimonials, including his latest distinction: In December, he was named “Seattle’s Best Plastic Surgeon” by the readers of Seattle Magazine. Since the honor is awarded by readers, we thought we’d ask him about the impact the Internet has had on communicating with curious consumers and converting them into satisfied patients.

MediBeauty.biz (MB): With more people researching doctors online, how do you start the discussion with potential patients?

Shahram Salemy (SS): Typically what happens is I get emailed a question where they’ll say they’re interested in, let’s say, breast augmentation, but they have concerns or questions. I try to respond to all of them myself. Sometimes it’s just one email [before they’re ready to decide] but sometimes it takes a little back and forth when they have a lot of questions – maybe they’re talking to three or four doctors online and they’re trying to decide who they’re going to see in person.

MB: Other than discussing details of the procedure in question, what else to you try to convey in your online conversations?

SS: We want them to get a sense from the very beginning that we’re interested in them and that they’re not just another patient inquiry. That’s one of the reasons I don’t have a staff member answer their initial emails – I think that conveys to them that the doctor wants to be involved in this.

MB: How has the discussion changed given the rise of social media?

Dr. Shahram Salemy is a Seattle Plastic Surgeon

SS: It used to be 10-15 years ago that most patients found their cosmetic surgeon by a referral from a friend or from their primary doctor. The friend referral piece still goes on but these days most patients don’t care as much what their doctor thinks of a particular plastic surgeon. What they want to know is what other patients who have had the same thing done think about the doctor. And the best way to get that information and do it essentially anonymously and from the comfort of their own home is to go online and read reviews.

MB: Once you receive patient interest from, say, Yelp, do you treat them any differently than someone calling from a friend referral?

SS: No, they’re treated the same way no matter how they find us. If they email us questions, we email them back. If they want to talk over the phone, I’m happy to do that. The real decision point for the patient is when they decide they want to physically come in and meet face-to-face. By that time, most have decided they want to have the procedure.

MB: Once they’ve decided to actually come in for a consult, what’s the procedure?

SS: We’ll bring them into one our exam rooms; I’ll come in and we’ll chat about the procedure. Sometimes I’ll draw pictures and I have an iPad so I can show them before and after photos of my work. If they have pictures of other patients or things they’ve found online, we’ll go over those. After that, if it’s a body treatment, I’ll step out so they can get into a gown, then come back in with a nurse and examine them to make sure that what they want is attainable. Then we put a plan together – what to expect on the day of surgery, what to expect afterwards.

MB: Does the process differ based on age or gender or procedure?

SS: It doesn’t. No matter who the patient is – man or woman, young or old – all patients come in a little nervous. They all want something done but sometimes they’re not quite ready for it. They need us to guide them in a really honest way about what we think will work.

What all patients appreciate is honesty. I try to say, okay, if this was this was my wife or a friend coming in to see a doctor, what would I want them to get out of the experience? We want them to be comfortable, we don’t want them to feel that we’re trying to sell them something. This is the honest answer that we think will get them the results they want.

MB: Do you have to, as sales-training experts like to say, “ask for the sale?”

SS: No. What I tell patients is if I’ve answered all your questions then I’ll have you meet my patient care coordinator who’ll go over costs and dates. When you decide you’re ready to move forward just give us a call and let us know. Truth be told, about half the patients schedule something right away. Others need to go home, talk to their spouse, etc., but we don’t ever pressure them to make the decision right away. Patients who are feeling pressure from either us or from another source – it’s just not a good situation.

MB: What are some of the mistakes doctors make in terms of their communication with potential patients?

SS: The biggest mistake I see is when doctors distance themselves from the patient. It can be a lot of work answering emails, taking calls, doing the consult itself, so they have a nurse or coordinator handle it. We don’t want that – we want them to know from the very beginning that I’m heavily involved. They tend to get a sense from me that I really do care about giving them a good result and also a really good experience. It starts with that very first point of contact.

On top of that, the idea that you’re not going to talk to someone unless they’ve already gone through this filtering process with your staff isn’t the way to go. That might have worked 10–15 years ago but not now. Patients really want to have access to you on every level and they want your opinion.

MB: You currently charge $100 for a consult (which can be applied toward the procedure)? Why is that?

SS: I used to not charge for consults but what I found was that we had a lot of folks who would cancel or not show up or weren’t particularly serious. The folks who are ready to go and really want to learn about the procedure have no problem paying for a consult. The only difference I’ve noticed [since starting to charge a fee] is that a higher percentage of the patients that come go on to have the surgery.

MB: Given the importance of reviews and patient testimonials, how do you get people to post about their experience?

SS: I don’t have a strategy – I just ask them. There’s no incentive for them, there’s no compensation. What we do is once a patient has gone through the healing process, we ask if that’s something they’d like to do. The overwhelming majority say they’d be happy to because that’s how they found us in the first place, too.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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