Social Media: Opportunity or Risk for Growing Integrative Medicine Practices?

By Glenn Sabin
Today more integrative medicine professionals than ever are using social media sites like LinkedIn for peer-to-peer connections that span the globe and allow for the sharing of ideas. Facebook has over 2 billion monthly users. Twitter has over 300 million monthly users.

While it’s hard to ignore this explosive growth, many integrative medicine clinics have not jumped on the social media train to engage current and prospective patients (customers).

The purpose of this article is to provide general guidance to integrative medicine providers interested in creating a foundational, legally sound, social media (aka social business) strategy to better engage current customers and new prospects alike.

Social media includes myriad platforms and channels.  Here is the basic mix:

  • Website + Blogging/Micro Blogging (Twitter)
  • Social Networks (Facebook, Google+, 100s of others)
  • Social Bookmarking (Digg, Delicious)
  • e-Newsletters/e-Blasts
  • Photo Sharing (Flickr, Pinterest)
  • Video Sharing: (YouTube, Vimeo)
  • Public Comments on Websites

Legal Exposure and HIPAA Concerns

Let’s get these important issues out of the way first. To properly and responsibly utilize social media to engage current and prospective customers you need to closely adhere to a few basic precepts.

  • Include a medical disclaimer
  • Do not offer specific, individualized medical advice
  • Never include actual full patient names, even in response to input or questions
  • Monitor your social platforms regularly for offensive behavior and to remove inappropriate comments

(Important: If your organization has established social media guidelines, review them carefully in the context of this post.)

It’s amazing to me how many IM websites fail to include a basic medical disclaimer. This fundamental SOP ought to be followed in every applicable social media outpost you use.  Here’s a very basic disclaimer used on FON’s site: “All information contained on this website is intended for informational and educational purposes only, and is not intended nor suited to be a replacement or substitute for professional medical treatment or for professional medical advice relative to a specific medical question or condition”. Looking for something more comprehensive? Go to any major medical website and find theirs at the footer (very bottom).  It’s either presented textually or linked to its own page. Add this today!  And while you’re at it, make sure you have a solid privacy notice and terms of use language accessible from the same footer area.  (Contact me if you need help and I’ll do what I can.)

Never provide specific medical advice to patients.  Communicate in general terms about specific conditions, through your own writings and the content of interest that you share across the social landscape. Patients and prospects wanting specific medical advice should be encouraged to make a clinic appointment.  This is an appropriate and responsible way to convert prospects to patients.

Patient privacy must be maintained in all communications. Do not disclose information that may be used to disclose patient identity or their health concerns. Remember that even by changing the name, a patient, family, friends, colleagues or employers may still be able to identify the patient.

The HITECH Act that promised providers economic incentives for implementing EHRs, simultaneously increased civil monetary penalties for unauthorized releases of protected health information.  The Office of Civil Rights received additional resources to reinforce HIPAA laws.  A major focus for this funding was aimed squarely on security breaches through social media, as the adoption of this form of communication has grown exponentially.  Providers who ignore HIPAA laws when engaging in social media strategy do so at their own peril. Simply follow the rules and you are golden.

Social Business is Good Business for Integrative Medicine

Social media done responsibly and effectively allows IM clinics to accomplish three important things:

  1. Engage: Through the consistent delivery of useful, helpful information, and interaction with consumers and organizations that have an affinity for integrative healthcare.
  2. Listen: Discover what your current and prospective patients are saying about your center and provide exceptional customer service.
  3. Grow: Increase clinic utilization by consistently getting out there and being helpful.

These are the three primary social business buckets for IM centers to consider.  Social media allows organizations to engage directly with prospective new patients by effectively cutting out the middle man (traditional media). Through the sharing and discussion of relevant, useful information about your area(s) of expertise, you establish thought leadership in your community and gain rapport and trust.  This is meaningful engagement.

By listening to what others are saying about your center—good or bad—on your social media pages and via searches, you will learn how to improve your business and introduce new local prospects to your brand (clinic).

Can you really grow patient volume with a smart social media strategy? Absolutely. But this is listed as #3 on the above list for a reason. And not because it’s the least important of the trio.  Social media first and foremost is about engagement through the sharing of relevant and useful information and solid listening.  This creates trust around your brand. You need to “give” at least 10-15 times for every “ask”. If your current social presence primarily consists of “selling” integrative services and heavy promotion of your center, then you are doing it wrong. Save that for print ads and radio spots that interrupt. Social media is for engagement and storytelling.

Setting Goals

You need to set realistic goals. You aren’t going to get 100,000 Facebook “likes” or 200,000 Twitter “followers” overnight. That is, unless Justin Beiber is blogging as part of your IM social media posse. And the sheer volume of likes and followers should not be the end-all metrics for which success is measured. Qualitative engagement beats quantitative connections every time.

Enjoying this article? Subscribe and get our latest, delivered straight to your inbox.

Focus on Your Hub

Your hub is your website, blog and newsletter.  Unlike the myriad social media outposts where you have the option of having a presence, you own your site, blog and newsletter—no one can take them away from you. Not so for social networks.  There you are just occupying their space. Although you can and should do business on social media platforms—i.e., get folks to respond to a given call-to-action—it should be your goal to get folks to your site to take a deeper look at your brand (center) and to take action, like signing up for your blog’s RSS feed or newsletter.

Choose Your Outposts Wisely

You don’t have to be everywhere!  Choose carefully.  Be where you believe your patients and prospects spend most of their time online.  Typically, three good places to start are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (Also realize that a portion of your customers and prospects still prefer to consume their content the old fashion way—ink on paper.  We’ll save this discussion for another post.)

Assign Ownership

One person within your organization should be made the manager of your social media program.  A modest upstart program, once set up, can be managed in as little time as 90 minutes per day—45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the evening. In addition to the all-important task of monitoring your social platform for inappropriate activity, new content can be shared, new conversations can be started and a listening post check-in can tell you who’s talking about you and your center. If you are a small clinic, the assigned social media manager might grow into the role of your main content assigner, organizer and tracker for all things social business and outbound communications, along with her other office duties.

No Content, No Social Media

I’ve said many times before that content is king for growing integrative medicine services.  The strategic creation and consistent dissemination of useful, relevant content creates engagement and builds trust around your brand.  It starts with your hub—a smart blog strategy—and from there helps populate your social media profiles.  Over time, your hub and its growing “fluid” content can also inform longer form writings (i.e., e-books, guides), short-form videos and an experiential education program–all aimed at building clinic utilization.

One Step at a Time

There are plenty of sophisticated social media measuring tools and endless apps and widgets to consider. The sky’s the limit for building out a sophisticated social platform presence. The post touches on the very basics.  Original content creation and dissemination strategy itself can become quite complicated.  A field as rich and vibrant as integrative medicine has enough interesting things to communicate and share that could easily fill up a twenty-year editorial calendar. Don’t let the tools and platforms bog things down and get in the way of the work that needs doing. There will be time to revisit all these things and the new opportunities that emerge daily.

Charting a strategy is imperative, understanding your unique center’s goals is key, but the secret is to develop your social media program in easily executable phases.   The secret is to start with an easily executable strategy and smart tactical plan in place. But do start, because over the long term, if done right, social media will be an important part of the sustainable marketing mix that elevates your brand recognition, builds trust and, importantly, grows patient volume for many years to come.

About FON

FON is a leading integrative health and medicine business development and strategy consulting firm. FON specializes in custom solutions for growing patient volume, developing programs, and increasing product sales. Our practical business models are driven by innovative marketing, clear messaging, and customer engagement via branded storytelling.

Contact us today to schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss your business development or personal brand needs.

Image of Glenn Sabin
Author: Glenn Sabin
FON’s founder, Glenn Sabin, is a nationally recognized thought leader with a reputation for successfully positioning integrative health organizations for sustainable growth. Combining media, marketing and business development expertise with an extensive professional and personal integrative health and medicine narrative, Glenn is deeply passionate about advancing the field as the new standard of care—accessible to all.
Read Glenn’s story.


image of FON book arrow,

What are you working on?