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Thinking Like a Patient

June 29, 2012
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A success story in patient engagement

A day after being engulfed in the craziness of the reporting on the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, I want to point our readers to an article I wrote earlier this week that may have gotten lost in the Affordable Care Act hubbub. The article, This Doctor Will Now See You on Facebook, highlighted the works of Jeff Livingston, M.D., a partner at the Irving, Texas-based MacArthur OB/GYN, a seven-physician, two mid-level provider obstetrics and gynecology practice.

Dr. Livingston’s dedication to and success in engaging his patients through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter is unlike anything I’ve seen before, especially from a doctor at a small practice. For a small firm, the social media numbers speak plenty for the work Livingston has done. He has 1,685 likes on MacArthur’s Facebook page and 3,010 followers for MacArthur’s Twitter page. He even told me MacArthur has presence on Google Plus, and soon it will have one on Pinterest.  

However, the work goes beyond that. It’s the recognition that when you’re trying to engage a patient, you have to think like a patient. This especially goes for a younger crowd, he said, who prefer to communicate electronically.

“As doctors, we don’t have to agree or disagree with that [method of communication], if we’re trying to engage patients, it’s not up to us how we do it. However patients want to get information, we should make it available to them,” Livingston said to me.

I’m guessing that connecting with patients on social media while improving yourself as a practitioner is not easy for most doctors to do. It’s easy to think like a doctor and not like a patient. A strong example Livingston told me was how he had posted an article on MacArthur’s Facebook page about mammogram recommendations. While this was a hot button issue for docs, he got no response on the Facebook page.

“I had to learn from my patients what was interesting to them, what was intriguing, and then I tailored my message around what they wanted to hear,” Livingston said. This meant “making the page fun.” To him, the key part is to find a balance between fun and meaningful. A conversation about dealing with sexuality in middle school or miscarriages may not be fun, but hearing responses will make him a better doctor.  

Of course, I would be remiss to talk about this subject and not address the bevy of concerns that come with social media and patient privacy. A recent study from the University of California at San Francisco on doctors communicating with patients online found that 92 percent of state medical boards in the United States have received reports of violations ranging from inappropriate contact with patients to misrepresentation of credentials. I’m sure everyone has heard a horror story of a doctor being fined over inappropriate contact with a patient over the web.

This is where the patient portal comes in to play. Using a portal is a good way to build off social media success. Livingston has seen increasing (60-70 new users per week) use of the portal, thanks to incessant reminders from staff members, who are trained to be on message about it. Security concerns are not a thing of the past, but you can’t use them as an excuse.

Livingston’s success is not the only kind in the industry, but it’s a strong lesson on how doctors can succeed in this area. Because like it or not, this kind of communication is here to stay.

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