AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 4, 2018


Taking the Leap into Social Media

Not an hour goes by when social media isn’t in the news, delivering the news or creating the news. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and myriad other social platforms are unavoidable and have changed the way we understand the world. Increasingly, physicians and executives are wondering to what extent they should be part of mainstream social media. Should they be posting, tweeting and firing away with their mobile phone cameras? Is the social media craze passing them by?

While there is no definitive answer, there is a definitive question: Do you have something to say?

Social media is a hugely effective, cost-efficient vehicle for disseminating and sharing information, sparking discussion and supporting colleagues near and far. Social media posts can be used to highlight new procedures, highlight relevant books, laud scientific discoveries and promote events. Done well, social media platforms can help anchor and broaden your brand.

Social media is not brain surgery, but using it to add value to your practice does require thought and planning.

  • Your social media feeds must adhere to your practice’s social networking policy and be professional in appearance and content;
  • You must comply with all patient privacy standards;
  • Take care to avoid potholes whenever possible; and
  • If criticism shows up in your feed, you will want a strategy in place to address it.

Here are a few recommendations to help you get started:


Confirm that you have the authority to have your own social media accounts. Your practice may require that communications professionals manage certain platforms.


Review the social networking policy of your practice or organization. It likely will include standard guidelines, such as never share PHI (including images) on social media, unless you have written permission – usually a signed release form – from the patient to do so; never use social media in such a way that violates any company policy; remember that anything you say reflects on your practice; and anything you say is likely to be around and visible to others for a very long time. Consult with your communications team or agency before establishing an account and get their advice about best practices.


Once you have the go-ahead, establish your voice and determine your desired audience. Will the platform represent the entire practice or clinic? Or will it specifically represent the CEO, chair or physician? Platforms representing a physician group should communicate in the official voice of the practice. If the platform is your own, be authentic in sharing observations and opinions. “Upload a profile photo and a short bio that includes a phone number or link to your website,” advises Haley Otman, a communications specialist at Michigan Medicine. “You will not be taken seriously on any platform without a photo.”


Find a model to emulate. Twitter, especially, is suited to the individual professional. Justin Dimick, MD, of the University of Michigan (@jdimick1) is a surgeon who uses Twitter well. Whether the platform is for the practice or an individual, stay positive and keep posts consistent with the goals of your organization. Building an audience takes time, so plan to post something once a week at the very least, and check your notifications daily. Otman suggests that for individual accounts, occasional non-medical tweets that reflect your personality – your love of a sports team or the arts, for example – are fine.


If a patient writes a public comment about his or her medical situation, move the conversation offline by providing a phone number or e-mail, instead of offering health care advice or commenting about the patient’s condition.


Err on the side of caution. Avoid posting strong opinions about politics that could alienate your customers. If in doubt, save your post in draft form and review it the next day. Avoid posting unflattering, out-of-focus photos. Your cell phone is unlikely to get a professional photo of a lecturer if you are sitting in the seventh row. Be especially cautious about photos taken away from the workplace, where colleagues may be drinking or joking. Everything on social media is public and can spread. If a photo could be misinterpreted, do not post it.


Read up about your new platform to avoid pitfalls. Hashtags, for example, are excellent tools that can help you communicate with people who normally don’t follow you. Examples include #Neurosurgery, #Spine and #WinterClinics. Always search a hashtag before using it to confirm that it is not already being used for something completely different.


Complaints happen. Trolls happen. What do you do if you feel targeted, or if an angry patient or follower posts negative comments on your platform? If a complaint is legitimate, politely refer the individual to your practice’s main number or website so that someone can try to resolve the issue. At the same time, alert your administrator or communications team. Spam or comments that use derogatory language on Facebook can be “hidden.” If the comments are abusive or harassing, do not respond or retaliate. This will only encourage the harasser, who is trying to get under your skin. In rare situations where the problem persists, talk to your communications or IT professionals about settings that allow you to block the tormentor. True harassment can be reported to appropriate authorities at stopbullying.gov.


In the event of a genuine crisis, consult an expert in crisis communications for assistance, either with your organization or a private agency. Honesty is the best way forward, although some organizations have opted for silence and, in rare circumstances, have temporarily shut down their social media accounts.


Finally, be positive and enjoy the ride! Social media platforms, well managed, can benefit organizations and individuals alike. Used well, they are a vehicle for networking, education and discovery.

The writer wishes to thank Haley Otman (Michigan Medicine), Tom Rosenberger (Mayfield Brain & Spine) and Barbara Daiker, PhD, RN (University of Minnesota Neurosurgery), for their contributions to this article.

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