INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Scalpel. Stethoscope. Twitter account?
Modern medicine is no longer just about the expertise and tools of the trade that heal patients. It’s also about the technology — think Internet and social networking — that helps doctors connect with patients.
Increasingly, health-care providers are turning to Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and other forms of social media to market their practice and share health information.
Dr. Wally Zollman, a plastic surgeon for more than three decades, started a professional Facebook page about a year and a half ago to get the word out about his practice.
“You can’t deny that 700 billion minutes a month are spent on Facebook. There’s all this interaction,” he said. “People are looking for someone to ask about, `Who’s your plumber? Who have you had luck with?’ It’s the same thing with surgeons.”
In addition to before-and-after videos, Zollman features specials that he’s offering on the page. He receives many kinds of questions, but he answers personal ones only by phone or email.
Social media such as Facebook can act as powerful marketing tools, said Keith Humes, CEO of Rosemont Media, a search engine marketing company based in San Diego that helps physicians set up an online presence.
Facebook is “the new word-of-mouth referral,” Humes said. “Facebook allows us to take a half-step into the practice and get a feeling for what it is like.”
The American Medical Association published guidelines for the use of social media in November. The policy includes advice such as: Be aware of patient privacy issues and maintain personal-professional boundaries.
Although there’s no way to tally how many physicians have ventured into social media, doctors are embracing Facebook more than Twitter, said Dr. Kevin Pho, an expert on the intersection of health care and social media. Fewer than 10,000 doctors tweet, and many do so for personal use.
Twitter allows short messages, which can be broadcast to all of the followers of that account or can be made private. Comments are limited to 140 characters for each post. Facebook allows sharing of information, including videos and photos. But permission must be given for others to be your “friends” and see your posts.
In the future, more physicians may turn to all these modes of interaction, said Pho, an internist in Nashua, N.H.
“Gone are the days when people are going to look for doctors in the Yellow Pages,” he said. “It’s really to a physician’s advantage to have a digital footprint. . . . I try to convince other doctors (that) you need to get online sooner rather than later.”
Hospital systems also are beginning to recognize the appeal, taking the medium beyond the question of whether doctors should email patients.
Nothing can replace a face-to-face visit, but there’s still ample place for health-care providers online, said Dan Rench, vice president of e-business for Community Health Network.
“It used to be that it was just a way for people to share information that they would typically have in a brochure,” Rench said. “Now it’s become the way that people do business.”
Community has an online chat option, where anyone older than 18 can pose health questions to a registered nurse for a “real-time,” or immediate, answer. Questions range from whether an emergency room visit is necessary after being hit on the head with a soccer ball to inquiries about sexually transmitted diseases.
Since the service started five years ago, there’s been “consistent utilization,” Rench said. In some instances the nurses, who work for a Tennessee company that provides the service for Community, may connect the person to a Community doctor.
The hospital also hosts an “Ask the Expert” interaction with video on its website. This gives visitors a chance to pose a question to a Community expert, as long as the question does not ask for a diagnosis.
At St. Vincent Health’s 3384her.com, a website specializing in the concerns of women, Julie Schnieders, a nurse practitioner, is the expert.
Visitors can ask questions through a form at the site, and Schnieders tries to respond within 24 hours. Sometimes, she calls the poster _ often to the person’s surprise.
On a recent day, she logged on to her computer and found 10 questions waiting.
“We’re not trying to replace their doctor; we’re just trying to be another avenue of sensible, correct information,” Schnieders said. “It’s just a way to get simple questions answered.”
The site has a Facebook page of its own. And Schnieders, who also has handled questions from men and boys, would like to see it expand.
“I think they ought to do 3384him,” she said.
Dave Coudret, 50, is already taking advantage of an online tool Community offers. The Beech Grove resident receives texts from his health coach encouraging him to exercise regularly and eat right.
A message might remind him to eat his fruits and vegetables or stick with his regimen. Community offers similar programs for pregnant women as well as those trying to manage chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or asthma.
“It’s nice to get a friendly text during the day,” Coudret said. “I just like the reminders and the fact that someone is thinking about me. It’s one more thing that might keep me motivated.”
Some messages he forwards to his twin brother in Evansville.
Smartphones may have even more of an effect on health care in the future. Health-care systems, such as Community, are exploring the possibility of letting doctors access patients’ electronic medical records on these devices. This would give doctors access to patients’ up-to-date information for answering after-hour calls, Rench said.
Some, such as Dr. Zeshan Rajput, a medical informatics fellow at the Regenstrief Institute, use Twitter to stay current with the latest medical literature.
“Any given fact in medicine, half of them are useless in 10 years,” said Rajput, also an internist at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “There’s a lot of medical news putting their headlines and links on Twitter. So it’s a really fast way for me to keep in touch with all that information.”
Not every physician heads at full speed into the digital world. Zollman’s practice was one of the first in the country to create a website in the early 1990s. He’s had no reservations about his professional Facebook page.
But that’s the only presence he has on the social media site.
“I started to open a personal Facebook page,” Zollman said, “and got so many weird communications that I just got off.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.