AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 29, Number 1, 2020


Snapping into Social Media

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Like most other adults I know (and certainly all the doctors), I pretty much ignored the public debut of Facebook in 2006. Wasn’t that for college kids? But as more and more adults flocked to it, and when it was followed by a veritable tsunami of different social networking sites, it became clear that this new medium could not be ignored. How doctors could pay attention to it without violating patient privacy, or straying beyond our ethical boundaries, was another matter indeed.

As social media expanded over the following years, I have made sure that our department stays current, but I take a cautious approach. I don’t want to be leading the way on this – I prefer that we be “fast followers” rather than “early adopters,” so we can spot any potential pitfalls in advance before we jump in.

In 2010 we launched a Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center Facebook page and a separate page for our Pediatric Brain and Spine Center. It quickly became clear that followers of the Brain and Spine Center account were primarily patients, and on the Pediatric site it was mostly the parents of patients. There are a handful of other doctors who follow us, but for the most part this is a forum for patients and potential patients.

We started slowly and carefully, and saw our following grow as we found our way. We decided to use these outlets primarily to spread the word about news items, patient success stories and event notices. Just about anything noteworthy that happens in our department gets written up for our website and is then posted to social media. Today the Brain and Spine Center has more than 1,200 Facebook followers, with 1,600 followers for pediatrics. (Several of our surgeons, including me, maintain separate Facebook accounts for our individual practices.) We also have nearly 1,000 followers on Twitter, and we tweet whatever we post to Facebook as an additional way to reach our base.

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In some months, Facebook has been the largest single referrer back to our website, which means our strategy is working – by posting and tweeting our news, we are proactively reaching out to individuals who want to hear from us. We know they aren’t visiting our website every day to see if anything is new, so social media is a good way for us to reach out to our followers and keep them informed about the work we are doing.

In May 2017, I made my first foray into Snapchat at the invitation of Dr. Kathryn Ko, a neurosurgeon/artist who more typically snaps about her visual art. During the 2017 AANS Annual Scientific Meeting in Los Angeles, Dr. Ko hosted a 12-hour stretch that she dubbed the “First-ever Neurosurgery Snap Takeover.” She has nearly 5,000 Instagram followers, so when it comes to social media I know she’s doing something right. When she invited me to be a part of her “Neurosurgery Snap Takeover,” I decided it would be a good way to test those waters.

The event lasted for 12 hours, during which Dr. Ko says she posted about 85 still photos and videos. I contributed a 10-second blurb – a video clip she shot of me at the AANS meeting – and I was astonished later to learn that the event had nearly a half million views.

No, indeed; social media sites are not to be ignored.

Of course, these new opportunities have their challenges as well. There are important privacy issues unique to these platforms, where nearly unlimited numbers of patients and potential patients can now reach out to doctors and practices as never before. We have had patients post their MRI scans to our Facebook page and ask for our opinion, or post personal health information about themselves or family members who have been diagnosed. It’s important that we stay on top of these accounts – social media pages are not “set it and forget it” enterprises at all. They need an ongoing commitment to setting expectations, monitoring conversations and responding to questions.

That’s why each of our social media pages has multiple staff members who act as administrators, with smartphone access 24/7. We have not had any true crises, but if one of our followers has a question, comment or review that goes onto our pages, we know about it immediately and can reply quickly.

I am enthusiastic about social media outlets, and the powerful tool they can be in communicating news and information to the public. As long as we remain on top of new technology and stay vigilant about protecting personal privacy, even when patients themselves seem to forget to, social media will remain an important means of outreach.


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