Social media will continue to change the way optometrists communicate—with each other and patients. It will also increasingly impact practice revenue, in both expected and unexpected ways.
by Alan N. Glazier, OD, FAAO
Social media has already added a significant layer to doctor-doctor and doctor-patient communications. Over the next few years and beyond, social media will continue to be an important way that optometrists communicate, especially with the prevalence of mobile devices. I also think it will increasingly impact revenue for individual practices, so that almost every optometrist will at least have a page on Facebook for their practice.
Speed of Information
One of the most powerful ways social media has impacted professional communications—in optometry as in other medical fields—is by speeding up the exchange of information.
Social media started with listservs in the late 1980s, which evolved into forums, and then finally into the social media platforms we know, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Once social media was established as a more-or-less permanent feature of the digital landscape, it became quick and easy to communicate through these channels. Most people who use a computer during the day are logged into at least one social media platform, so it’s relatively easy to connect with other people for information.
Social media is becoming a primary way that professionals—including optometrists—find out what’s happening in their field. Already, I notice that by the time a piece of news is published in a print journal, it has often been discussed—sometimes to death—on social media. On the one hand, this is good news: more doctors have faster access to the latest research and developments in the field. As a side bonus, the sharing of information on social media helps forge professional bonds.
However, if the old print model didn’t allow for the speed and interaction of social media, it did have the advantage of an editorial process that selected thoughtful voices and shaped conversation over time. In order to be a net positive force in professional communications moving forward, social media will need to find ways to encourage what was valuable in those older forms of communication, such as story selection, editing, and fully documented, scientific proof of claims. It will need to make a place for slower, deeper thinking—for example, by curating, summarizing, and providing editorial commentary on the important topics of conversation, returning to them over time instead of simply moving on to what’s new.
The long-term effect of social media on clinical practice is still uncertain. If sharing information on social media replaces the careful reading of new research in journals, it could have a negative influence on practice. But if information-sharing supplements that reading, clinical practice will likely benefit. Being able to discuss the latest research as well as share cases with colleagues around the country and the world has enormous power.
Social media will also need to encourage the professional collegiality that the older print model encouraged. I started ODs on Facebook in part as a response to what I perceived as the shortcomings of a forum I was in at the time. The engagement between members was largely unmonitored, and the conversation—as is too often the case online—was often inappropriate, perhaps due to the perceived distance that the Internet creates between people who are communicating.
In contrast, when people are face to face, there are social restraints on personal attacks. Print correspondence also tends to encourage a more disciplined form of conversation than social media, but for somewhat different reasons: print gives people time to think carefully and shape their arguments before sending a letter to the editor. And editors are a second line of defense: they will choose carefully which letters to print and expunge material that is irrelevant or offensive.
The advent of social media has meant renegotiating standards for professional discourse. If we are to use social media to advance our profession, we’ll need to apply some traditional standards to the new medium. It’s certainly possible; when I established the social media forum ODs on Facebook, I set guidelines to keep the conversation friendly and professional, and those efforts have been largely successful.
Another issue with social media is that threads can fairly easily segue into irrelevancies, especially when the conversation isn’t being channeled or monitored, which is typically the case. To be successful, social media in optometry will need people who can actively stimulate and guide discussion. Again, this can be done—ODs on Facebook proves it is possible.
Open Versus Closed Communities
When I created ODs on Facebook, I decided to open it up to more than just optometrists. We don’t practice in a vacuum. During the course of a day, I engage with my office manager, my opticians, salespeople, corporate executives, and media professionals. I crave different perspectives, because the knowledge I can gain from a conversation restricted to optometrists is limited. I decided to accept industry members in our group (although it is still 87% optometrists and optometry students) and I think it has been a tremendous asset. The industry professionals have accepted the guidelines and limits.
Ultimately, I think this kind of open discussion is good for optometry, but, as in any conversation, it requires paying close attention to who is speaking and their possible conflicts of interest. It can also mean having to wade through more content to find material relevant to one’s own practice. When it works, the multiple perspectives allow us to see things we might have missed—for example, practicing optometrists can give researchers and industry representatives valuable information about the clinical context in which therapies will be used, and industry can provide researchers and practicing optometrists valuable information about the business models needed to support those therapies.
The New Yellow Pages
Social media efforts have also driven very significant business for my practice—I would estimate 70-80% of my new business comes directly or indirectly from social media. Platforms such as Facebook have helped me connect directly with colleagues and provide meaningful content for existing patients, but they have another important and often overlooked function: determining one’s rank in Internet search engine results. My practice’s Facebook page has helped ensure that our office appears toward the top of the first page in search results within my geographical area for “optometrist” or “optometry.”
A Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 3,014 adults living in the United States found that 77% of people searching for health information online say they began their last session at a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Commonly researched topics include specific diseases, treatments, and doctors.1
So if a patient is looking for an optometrist in Washington, DC or Des Moines, IA, how does Google find web pages matching the individual query and determine the order of search results? A lot of money—and even practice survival—can be riding on the answer. The process has three steps: crawling, indexing, and serving.2
Massive banks of computers pore over (“crawl”) billions of web pages to extract and index data. This index, based on key words (like “optometrist”), allows the system to serve up pages matched to the query in order of “relevance” as defined by the search engine’s algorithm. One’s “relevance” can be greatly improved through an active social media presence. Then, when people in a particular geographical vicinity search for words that overlap with the conversation on a Facebook page, for example, the owner of that page will come up higher in search results. If this is how patients find doctors today, one’s search engine ranking is critical.
The bottom line is that, while still imperfect, social media adds much to professional conversation and may contribute significantly to the practice’s bottom line.
Alan N. Glazier, OD, FAAO, is a practicing optometrist in Rockville, MD, and the author of Searchial Marketing: How Social Media Drives Search Optimization In Web 3.0 (AuthorHouse, 2011) which is the culmination of years of research and modifying his own online presence to become prominent in Google searches.
Fox, S, Duggan M. Information Triage. Pew Research Center—Internet, Science, and Tech. www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/15/health-online-2013. Accessed May 22, 2015.
How Google Search Works. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/70897?hl=en. Accessed May 22, 2015.