Gut Instincts and Social Media: Tips for Your GI Practice

Megan Brooks

May 20, 2022

In the digital age, being present on social media is no longer just an enhancement of medical practice, it's become an essential way to build bridges and establish trust with patients, to network with colleagues, and to dispel misinformation online.

"Simply put, the days of the Yellow Pages and the Rolodex are behind patients increasingly turn to the internet for information about their health and who they select as their provider," writes Austin L. Chiang, MD, MPH, in an article published online in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Chiang, who is with the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, serves as president of the nonprofit Association of Healthcare Social Media (AHSM). Chiang and his colleagues co-founded AHSM in 2019 after an online conversation with "internet friends" made it abundantly clear that healthcare professionals were increasingly using social media platforms to market their practices, provide disease awareness messages, and expand medical education. AHSM now boasts more than 730 members.

Yet, the truth is that physicians still lack formal training in marketing, communications, and public relations skills, Chiang points out, and managing a social media presence can be a full-time job.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Popular Platforms

"In a landscape where multiple complex social media platforms exist, it may seem daunting to navigate the different, varying platforms," Chiang writes.

For gastrointestinal (GI) practices embarking on a social media presence, Chiang reviews the strengths and weaknesses of the most widely used platforms ― Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Twitter is largely a text-based microblogging platform that's easy to use and has an existing community of gastroenterologists. However, because tweets are fleeting and are limited to 240 characters each, it may not be the best for growing a GI practice through in-depth conversations or extended explanations aimed at the general public.

Instagram (a sister application of Facebook) is primarily a photo- and caption-based platform, although it recently switched to a video-based strategy, which has forced users to adapt. Instagram is "increasingly convoluted," Chiang notes.

Facebook is useful for marketing a GI practice with a business page and communicating directly with patients, but it too is a "highly convoluted" platform with an unfavorable public opinion.

YouTube is an online video-sharing platform and is the best for long-form video explanations or public education, but it's time consuming and requires skills in filming and editing.

TikTok is a short-form video-based social platform and is the fastest-growing major platform, but it requires one to be comfortable appearing on camera and to have story telling ability.

LinkedIn is a business- and employment-focused social networking platform. It's best for recruiting staff and showcasing credentials and professional achievements.

Where to Start?

For gastroenterologists thinking about establishing a social media presence, Sophie Balzora, MD (@SophieBalzoraMD), a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, suggests the book, Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices, written by Kevin Pho, MD, and Susan Gay.

It's a helpful resource for those who want to enter the foray of social media professionally but don't know where to begin or how to get started safely and thoughtfully, Balzora told Medscape Medical News.

In her experience, there are many benefits to creating a professional social media account, "both as it relates to patients and as it relates to establishing connections and relationships with current and future colleagues that you would otherwise never meet or collaborate with within the limits of your academic space or network.

"Social media allows you to go where your patients are, understand where their concerns, fears, or questions may be emanating from in terms of the medical information they are consuming online, and work with them to establish whether the information is sound and coming from a reputable source is a huge advantage," Balzora explained.

Social media can also help healthcare professionals "create and shuttle folks to content that is scientific, reliable, and patient-centered," Balzora said.

Having a professional social media presence has allowed Balzora to network with peers, which has led to "many wonderful opportunities to connect with people nationally and even internationally, thanks to the ways in which social media expands our world. This has resulted in sponsorship opportunities, mentor/mentee relationships, and scholarship," she said.

It has also been a way for her to find colleagues with similar interests, which certainly "humanizes the person on the other side of the screen. Having the chance to then meet in person when the opportunity presents itself, be it a national meeting or otherwise, is icing on the cake."

Balzora's advice to first timers? "It can seem overwhelming, so it's fine to be a voyeur at first. See what social media platform works best for you and explore."

Know What You Want From Social Media, and Proceed Cautiously

Mohammad Bilal, MD (@BilalMohammadMD), an endoscopist and gastroenterologist at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minnesota, is also a proponent of social media in medicine. His recent articles on the topic include The Do's and Don'ts of Social Media: A Guide For Gastroenterologists and The Impact of Twitter: Why Should You Get Involved, and Tips and Tricks to Get Started ― both published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.

In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Bilal said it's important for physicians to first define their goals for using social media, "which lets you utilize social media more efficiently.

"This could include keeping up with medical education, networking with like-minded physicians, augmenting or sharing research, or promoting their practice, or just get ideas on how other physicians do things," Bilal said.

Bilal said his personal goal with using social media is medical education and trying to find collaborations, which he does primarily through Twitter.

"I have other colleagues who want to do patient awareness and engagement, and for that, Instagram or Facebook might be better," he said.

Social media can also make physicians aware of relevant research that may fly under the radar.

"No one can read all the medical journals. You might get to the big ones ― Gastroenterology, The American Journal of Gastroenterology, Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology ― but there's a lot of mid-level journals that publish excellent science, and not all of us read it," he explained.

"All of these journals now have Twitter accounts or social media accounts, and they share these articles, so I get a lot of up-to-date literature from these accounts," Bilal said.

He added that, like any other tool, social media has to be used appropriately and carefully.

"What I always say in my talks on this topic is, think twice, write twice, look at it twice before you tweet it out," Bilal said.

Chiang, Balzora, and Bilal report no relevant financial relationships.

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. Published online April 26, 2022. Abstract

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