The 5 Cs of Social Healthcare: Create a Code of Conduct for Online Interactions (Part IV in a series)

code of conduct, 5 Cs of social healthcare

Doctors who create a formal Code of Conduct for social media interaction protect patients — and their practices. (Photo by bobbi vie via flickr.)

No doubt, you’ve heard the horror stories: In Missouri, an OB-GYN is reprimanded for posting inappropriate comments about a patient on Facebook. In Rhode Island, a doctor is fired and fined after revealing identifiable patient information on the site. And in St. Louis, a cosmetic surgeon is sued for negligence after the digital information in her Before & After gallery is used to determine the identity of her otherwise-anonymous patients.

Does that mean you should avoid social media altogether? Absolutely not. For one thing, eschewing the medium also means not connecting with the millions of people who rely on it as a primary source of healthcare information. For another, it’s not the medium that created the problem for the above doctors; it’s how they used it.

The key is not to avoid social media but to create a code of conduct that allows you and your staff to interact with aesthetic consumers while maintaining professional standards and patient privacy.

The fact is that social media is both a cause and effect in the trend toward “participatory medicine,” in which patients play an increasingly active role in making decisions about their healthcare. The difference is that the conversations that lead to those decisions are no longer confined by the walls of your practice. Between Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, what’s posted online by and about you can go viral in minutes and has the potential to stay on the Internet forever.

And since ignoring those conversations isn’t an option — they’re ongoing whether you participate or not — you need to make sure a) you’re listening, b) joining in to make sure your voice is heard and c) responding in a manner that supports your practice philosophy and protects your professional reputation. As Maureen Ezekwugo, EVP Doctor Community at RealSelf, says,

Establishing a Code of Conduct for social media will provide guideposts to set the direction of your online brand and keep your social media strategy on track.

Create it, codify it and coordinate its implementation with your staff and you’ll never have to worry about seeing your name added to the list of social healthcare’s cautionary tales.

Doctor Takeaways

1. Protecting patients also provides safeguards for doctors

Rule No. 1 in any Code of Conduct is the same regardless of the medium of expression: Maintain patient confidentiality. Ensure anything that’s shared via social media can’t be used to identify individual patients; scrub photos of patients’ names and file data, and maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship just as you would in any other context.

2. Establishing who can post on your behalf ensures consistency

Some doctors enjoy engaging in social media; others find they just don’t have the time. It’s okay to have other members of your practice participate in social conversations but since they’re speaking for you, it’s crucial that you establish ground rules as to who can respond, what they can and can’t say, and how best to ensure that they respond in ways that support your practice philosophy and provide a sense of authenticity.

3. Meeting — and then exceeding — response times promotes positive impressions

Thanks to the always-on nature of the Internet, people expect to get the information they want quicker than ever and many aesthetic consumers will eliminate doctors who don’t respond to social inquiries from further consideration. To avoid that situation, create a system in which someone from the practice responds within a set amount of time — and then strive to beat the clock. Chances are that patient is making inquiries elsewhere, as well, so speed is of the essence.

4. Responding to negative feedback before it spreads is the key to reputation management

Contrary to popular misconception, most people do not take to the Internet to complain. That said, at some point, you will almost certainly encounter a patient who does. Not responding is not an option — silence in social media only allows bad news to spread farther faster — and reacting in the heat of the moment heightens the risk that you’ll respond emotionally. Establish how your practice will handle negative feedback BEFORE you have to so you can respond rather than react.

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, and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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