People search online for recommendations on everything from the best places to eat to the best hiking trails—and now the best ophthalmologists are also only a few clicks away. 

“Evidence-based surveys within the past five years indicate a rise in the number of people using online resources to choose their physicians or providers,” says David R. P. Almeida, MD, MBA, PhD, a vitreoretinal surgeon at Erie Retinal Surgery in Erie, Pennsylvania. “We went from about 10 to 15 percent of people searching online for their physicians to closer to 70 percent. That number is just going to keep rising. Soon everyone will Google their doctors, and you have to be ready for that.”

Robert F. Melendez, MD, MBA, in practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees, adding that patients not only search but leave reviews. “Patients are online more and they’re reviewing various products and services already, whether it’s a restaurant or an Air BnB, and a doctor’s office is no different,” he says.  

“When a patient sees ratings of 4.5 or 3.2 stars for a doctor, that may not be a true indication of the doctor’s ability or skill, but the patient’s initial perception is heavily affected by that score,” he explains. “So for physicians to have the wherewithal to know that patients are searching for them, which they are, they need to be as in control as possible of their online reputations.” 

Here, these social media experts share what shapes your online reputation, how to improve it, keep tabs on it and make it work for you, and some strategies for avoiding the most common social media pitfalls.


Inevitably Online

If you’re new to social media or haven’t established an online presence, both Dr. Almeida and Dr. Melendez say one of your first steps should be an internet search of your name to get an idea of what’s already out there about you. “How you’re seen online matters, even if you have no conscious online presence,” says Dr. Almeida. “You have to be aware of what comes up when patients search for you.” 

“Online review sites create pages on our behalf and it’s our job to claim them,” says Dr. Melendez. “This is only continuing to grow; I’ve had several patients in the past few years tell me they found me online.”  

Dr. Melendez advises “claiming” your online review sites. “Perform a search with the most commonly used search engines—Google or Yahoo, for example—and look on the first three pages of results to see which review sites are coming up. Focus on those first,” he advises. “Claim them, update your professional photo and make sure your contact information is correct.” He adds that it’s also a good idea to perform a search using any other names you go by, such as a nickname, to cover all your bases.  

A strong practice with a good reputation doesn’t necessarily confer good online ratings, and what you find may surprise you, says Dr. Melendez. “You can’t let low scores stand,” he says. “If you’re one of those doctors who has a 2.5 rating out of five, you need to fix that; it doesn’t look good.” 


Raising Low Ratings

While you can’t undo a bad review, you can improve your ratings by encouraging patients to rate you when you see them at the clinic, Dr. Melendez says. “Typically, patients—and people in general—won’t go out of their way to review anything unless they’re extremely happy or extremely unhappy. Our job is to keep everybody happy and satisfied, but we’re not perfect and sometimes we run late in the clinic because of an emergency or some other issue like a complicated surgery. 

“It’s important to communicate with your patient and explain why you’re running late, why you made them wait,” he continues. “Once you explain, most patients are reasonable and will say, ‘Oh! That makes sense.’ Then the odds that they’ll write a negative review of you are very low. It’s not about the score, but about delivering every day in the clinic and OR.”

Addressing patients’ dissatisfaction before they leave the clinic is key. “The patients who leave unhappy are the ones who will post negative reviews,” Dr. Melendez says. “It’s a good idea to have your staff let you know if a patient has been waiting a while. The first thing to do is apologize for the long wait and ask if there’s anything you can do to make it up to them next time. One solution may be to offer an earlier appointment time so they’ll be first in the clinic with no one ahead of them. Once you make it right on the clinic side, you won’t have to worry about what they’ll write online.” 

Rating sites are powerful, impression-forming tools for patients, but Dr. Melendez points out that while a five-star rating is outstanding, it’s not always necessary—or believable. “A study out of Stanford found that people would rather see a 4.6 than a 5.0 because a 4.6 seems real—a perfect five looks a little fake,” he explains. “If your score is above 4.0, I think you’re doing well. Everyone’s going to have one to five negative comments. If it’s 4.5 or higher, that’s great. If it’s a 5.0, that’s outstanding, but it’s not always necessary. Consistent feedback is also important. If your latest reviews are several years old, it may be time to fix that.”


Negative Comments

When faced with a negative comment online, your first reaction may be to respond right away, but Dr. Almeida says to take a breath first. “Just stop and don’t reply,” he says. “That’s the most important step. You’ll be frustrated, but you have to walk away for now. You or your office should call the patient privately and start the communication there. That could lead to the patient coming into the office to discuss the matter further. We know from insurance malpractice studies that most negative issues stem from a lack of communication or a communication breakdown. You can address these issues easily with a phone call. Just don’t get into a beef or start a Twitter war.” 


Your Online Brand

Dr. Almeida says that if you like doing social media, there are many options for cultivating your online profiles. If you don’t enjoy being online in this capacity, simple posts about pertinent journal articles, practice updates or conferences you’ve attended can suffice. 

Forming and maintaining your online identity will depend on two basic principles: credibility and honesty, he says. “Your brand represents you and your practice, so you want it to be genuine,” he advises. “Don’t hand the keys to someone else, such as your office manager or a technician, and ask them to post things on your behalf. That’s not your voice, and it’s not going to benefit you. Your social media profiles should be as authentic to you as possible.” 

Dr. Melendez adds, however, that if you’re just trying to let people know you’re fun and engaging and share some things you do in the community such as teaching, lecturing or attending conferences, then someone in your clinic may be able to run your social media profile, as long as you give them specific guidelines on what to post and what not to post. 

With the wealth of information available on the internet, it’s also important to separate fact from fiction. “As physicians, it’s important to post credible, evidence-based content,” Dr. Almeida says. “Build credibility and trust by posting things that are accurate and true. Don’t post an opinion on a topic unless it’s been verified by multiple sources. Your sources can come from outside journals, but they should be credible news sources if you’re going that route.”

Dr. Almeida explains that building trust comes through consistently communicating in effective ways and by posting things of value. “If you’re posting what you had for dinner, that may be fun for your friends or people who know you personally, but it’s not anything of value,” he explains. “Consider who’s following your accounts: are they patients, colleagues, administrators, researchers, residents, other doctors? Your content should be of value to your audience. If your practice has a strong focus on patient care or on managing really complex diseases, then posting about new technology may not be as relevant to your practice and therefore won’t align with your brand.”


Practice Promotion

In a sense, anything you post online is a form of marketing for your practice and for yourself, so representing yourself well across social media is key. Dr. Almeida says you’ll be targeting two demographics when you go about promoting your practice: potential and existing patients, and referring colleagues. Then, you need to identify what’s of value to each group.

“For patients, disease-specific information is very popular,” he says. “What it is, how it’s treated and that your office provides care for it are all useful to your patients. In other words, it’s high-value, non-offensive, low-risk content. This is a really good route to go.

“For a referral network, you might want to post CME-related content, updates in the field and things you think referring doctors might enjoy reading about,” he continues. “If you’re a subspecialist, you’ll probably want to post thoughtful insight into current topics relevant to all ophthalmologists and optometrists.”


Snares of Sponsorship

Experts say you should avoid sponsorship and conflicts of interest at all costs, lest you erode your credibility. “Anything you say will be open to interpretation and may not necessarily be aligned with what you actually meant,” Dr. Almeida says. “For example, if you say, ‘This new study shows that A is better than B,’ depending on how you post that, it’s going to be interpreted that you’re endorsing A over B, when you’re just stating the results of a trial. It’s surprising how these can come back to bite you. Word your posts carefully, and again, make sure all of your posts have value.

“You also can’t sell stuff,” he adds, “even if your clinic sells it. Becoming a sales person for a product or service does not add value and diminishes your credibility. If you want to promote something, you can talk about the studies or evidence for the technique or technology you use, and you can educate people on it, but you can’t really hawk stuff. It’s just not a good look.”


A Targeted Approach

As noted, the type of content you post will be determined in part by your audience. Is your account geared toward patients? Referring doctors? Colleagues? Many ophthalmologists choose to focus on patient education, such as disease states, or doctor education both inside and outside ophthalmology. “If you have a targeted approach, your account will make more sense to those accessing your social media sites,” Dr. Almeida says. 

Posts about general medical topics are likely to draw a larger, more general audience, while more specialized topics may draw a smaller crowd. Dr. Almeida gives the example of a doctor who specializes in juvenile glaucoma. “You may post really good content, but it might be so niche that it fails to attract a broad audience,” he says. 

If you have a more specialized focus, or even if you just want to expand your audience, here are three steps you can take:

1. Post content that’s specific to your field.

2. Draw some tangents to general ophthalmology or medicine. “If you’re that juvenile glaucoma specialist, you might post about recently published articles in pediatric ophthalmology or socioeconomic determinants of health in children or myopia progression in children,” Dr. Almeida suggests.

3. Find your personal voice. “If you don’t find your personal voice, your account has the potential to become boring,” Dr. Almeida says. “Again, you should avoid conflicts of interest and selling things, and you should stay away from politics. There some instances, however, when you should make your voice heard. Generally the medical community remains quiet, but there comes a time when apathy isn’t an option and not speaking is tantamount to agreeing or allowing injustice to happen. This third step is much more advanced,” he adds. “Stick with the first two until you become more comfortable online and then move on to step three.”


To Post or Not to Post

While social media is a powerful tool for networking, increasing your practice’s visibility, participating in webinars and online panels and educating patients and fellow doctors, it can also potentially get you into trouble if you post inappropriate content.  

“Given how conservative medicine is, there may not be a whole lot to gain initially from having a big online presence, but there’s probably a lot to lose if, for example, you don’t manage patient privacy properly,” Dr. Almeida says. “Patient privacy is among the top pitfalls.”

Failing to separate your professional and personal profiles is the next biggest pitfall. “Your practice or professional profile should exist separately from your personal profiles,” Dr. Almeida says. “You shouldn’t be posting about your kids, what you’re having for dinner, or where you went on the weekend on your professional or practice online profile. Posting this type of content may erode your ability to communicate effectively and professionally.”

Many younger ophthalmologists, however, feel it’s important to share what goes on behind the scenes in a doctor’s life, not only to give patients a glimpse into their lives to build rapport, but also to inspire young people to pursue medicine or encourage medical students by being realistic about work-life balance expectations, mental health or starting families in the midst of medical careers. How much or how little you share is entirely up to you; it depends on whom you wish to reach and influence with your social media account, though experts agree the safest route is to maintain separate professional and personal accounts.  

Making any kind of political statement on your accounts may also cause problems down the road. “You cannot say, ‘Hey, vote for this,’ but it would be fine to say, ‘Go vote,’ ” Dr. Almeida notes. “You’re allowed to have political opinions—just don’t express them online. Your patients or colleagues may be from different parties or hold different views, and the alienation that results from making political statements can be significant and can hinder the patient-physician rapport you’re working so hard to build. If it’s not something you’d discuss with a patient in the clinic, it’s not something you should post online.” 


Social Media Platforms

There are many social media platforms and each of them has certain strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Melendez says that when you’re just starting out with social media, the first question you want to ask yourself is: Am I about producing content or consuming content? In this case, your focus should be on producing content.

“A producer focuses on producing content,” he says. “A consumer rarely produces content and mainly consumes it. Twitter is a good example of content consuming, where the vast majority of users might like or retweet or comment, but on the whole, don’t contribute much. Facebook is about half and half, and Instagram is more of a 70/30 breakdown for producing/consuming, where most users share photos.”

Here are some of the most commonly used social media platforms:

• Twitter. “Twitter is the ideal starting point for everyone,” Dr. Almeida says. “It’s a micro blog, and it doesn’t require significant time or energy, so you can keep things easily digestible.” Twitter limits characters to 280 or fewer, so there’s no need to write lengthy discourses on topics. It’s a good platform for sharing new studies, medical news or practice updates.

• YouTube. “It’s the most commonly used social media site right now,” says Dr. Melendez. “Creating high-quality videos is key. As a physician, I take pride in educating patients and doctors. I post educational videos, with patient consent. Once your video is made, you can share it on other social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.”

“Many people believe that video currency is the future of social media,” adds Dr. Almeida, who creates retinal teaching videos with his colleagues. “Recording the videos takes time, but it’s become such an important currency that we may see more and more people doing this.”

• Facebook. “As a classic social media platform, Facebook is still king,” says Dr. Melendez. “We’re starting to see older individuals using Facebook more often than younger ones. Young people are still on it, but they aren’t as active as they once were.” 

“Facebook probably runs the biggest gamut of the social media platforms,” Dr. Almeida adds. “It can be very professional, very unprofessional and in-between. It’s become less significant for us in recent years in terms of brand building and practice promotion, just because there’s so much disinformation on the site and controversy over the data that Facebook collects from us.”

• Instagram. Dr. Melendez says Instagram is the best fit for reaching those aged 18 to 40. It’s his social media platform of choice. “I do a lot of teaching, and I have a professional education page where I post educational things about the eyes and our profession.” Many of his medical students also use TikTok and Snapchat, he says.

Dr. Almeida doesn’t use Instagram that often, but notes that it’s a very visual platform. “This platform may not be as relevant for lengthier written content or comments, such as sharing a new publication or study,” he says.

• LinkedIn. Dr. Melendez says that LinkedIn is more formal than most other social media platforms. Its strength lies in network-building. “LinkedIn is for sharing more professional ideas, leadership articles or how to be better professionally and personally, and those are things you don’t typically see on platforms like Facebook. On Facebook you could encounter something similar, but it might be alongside a video of a cat drinking milk.” 

Dr. Almeida notes that you’ll likely find other colleagues on LinkedIn, as well as industry and government reps, who may use this platform to reach out.


Getting Serious

With an already packed schedule, committing to building your online brand may seem daunting. Experts contend, however, that investing the time and effort to do it right is well worth it.

“My recommendation is that if you’re going to do it, you have to go all in,” Dr. Melendez says. “You can’t just create five social media profiles and then let them stagnate. That’s analogous to putting a ‘for sale’ sign on your house and not advertising beyond that. The only people who’ll see it are your neighbors and the occasional people who might drive by.”

A professional website for you or your practice can also help to shape your online brand by bringing all of your online presences together in one place. “Your practice website should be more than just your practice name and address—that’s just the yellow pages,” says Dr. Almeida. “It should communicate your brand, what kind of care you deliver, disease-specific information and what services you provide for your community.” This is also the spot to add information about yourself, your education, and any awards and publications you have.

Attributes such as key words and search engine optimization often come into play with websites, but Dr. Almeida says you don’t have to get that detailed. “There are so many levels you can get into with websites, and if you’re enjoying the process, then certainly give those other aspects a try, but they’re not necessary now,” he says.

If this sounds like a big undertaking, keep in mind that most physicians don’t do this alone. “If a bunch of negative results come up when you search online for your name or practice, you can seek out professional services to remedy that,” Dr. Almeida says. 

Additionally, many practices and physicians hire professionals to build their websites for them. “It’s worth it to spend the money to do it right,” Dr. Melendez says. 


The Bottom Line

“Ultimately, your online reputation matters a great deal,” says Dr. Melendez. “Patients are looking for you online. Your social media accounts or your website will ease patient fears about you, as a person. When patients search online for you, they’re trying to get to know you: Are you experienced and qualified? Do you look and sound like a nice person? What are your review scores like?”   REVIEW