The Doctor Is In: Using social media to connect with patients

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(KPLR) - Dr. Sonny Saggar talked with Christine Buck about how physicians use social media and telemedicine to connect with patients.

You can also connect with Dr. Saggar, the Medical Director at St. Louis Urgent Cares, and ask him any questions you like via:

Sonny Saggar MD


1. How is social media being used to connect with patients?

● What is social media anyway: Any means of interaction among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas; most of us think of Facebook and Twitter, but there’s also Google+, YouTube, Skype and LinkedIn.

● Electronic conversation: This is really just an extension between patient and physician.

● Rapid increase: in the use of social media in healthcare; over 20% of patients already use social media for getting healthcare information, but since anyone can post, the information that gets passed along isn't always accurate.

● This is a new service that started last Christmas. It enables anyone in the state of Missouri to communicate with a doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or nurse, via phone, text, email or video conference, for as low as $15! Of course, it’s never perfect to manage a medical problem in this way so the patient should only use this service if they simply can’t get out to a medical visit at an ER, urgent care or primary care office. Sometimes, the healthcare professional will have to insist that the person gets a personal visit with someone when it would be silly to treat them over the phone, for example with chest pain.

2. Can you give me some examples of how some physicians are connecting with their patients, using social media and other technology?

● Telemedicine: Services like schedules video conferences, phone conferences, even texting sessions with patients. This is great if they’re traveling or just too busy to make it in. Interestingly, these things are increasingly covered by insurers, but costs even less than using insurance.

● Pictures: I have my patients text me pictures of their rashes and email me routinely about something I saw in the office; it’s so convenient for the patient, rather than having them come back in every time something changes. can also be used for the exchange of pictures if needed.

● Events: Promoting and reporting on an annual fitness challenge for example, creates excitement and a sense of competition around something that is good for everyone.

● Flu shots: Reminding people to come in and get their flu vaccine in September - explaining why it’s a good idea.

● Smoking: Reminding people to quit smoking on The Great American Smokeout in November - suggesting various ways to quit. Doctors can use social media to promote such group activities, which have been shown to really work. When people quit smoking with others, they are less likely to start up again, so it creates a buzz in the office or the community.

● Weather: Even simply discussing the weather and reminding people to dress up warm in the winter, or not to forget the sunscreen in the summer. Many good physicians, nurse practitioners will remain connected with their patients by reminding them to take the sunscreen with them to the pool, especially for the kids. It’s a simple tweet or Facebook post, but it does seem to work.

● Alerts & Reminders: Some doctors post real-time alerts and reminders, great for time-pressed patients. Some even tweet when they're running late for appointments. Of course I never do that, because I never run late for appointments!!!

3. What’s different about social media, compared with more traditional methods of connecting with patients?

● Time-saving and money-saving: Doctors Blogging and Facebooking with back and forth questions and answers, instead of having to make an appointment (this is saving time and money for the patient). Similarly, using a service like also saves the patient time and money.

● Feeling connected: A greater sense of feeling connected and getting answers to your questions and concerns faster. Patients really seem proud of having a physician who blogs and makes an effort to inform the community. That’s why I show up here every week, otherwise I risk letting my patients down!

● Updates: It’s rapidly becoming the norm that your personal physician has a presence on Facebook and Twitter, where they will share interesting findings and updated medical guidelines relating to the latest research.

● Momentum: Like most innovations—it starts slow and then picks up momentum. I'm sure we'll be seeing even more of this in the future.

● Personal: Hospitals have tried to invest in this with their massive budgets but it works best with private physicians speaking as individuals, rather than as part of a big system. Probably because it’s more personal. More one-on-one. Creating rapport using social media seems to be immune to big fat budgets. It’s nice that sometimes money can’t buy everything. Maybe the best things in life really are free!

4. What about privacy concerns? Isn’t there a risk that a patient’s personal information could accidentally be made public?

● Risks: Online anonymity is never guaranteed; a patient who tweets, or posts details on Facebook, about a diagnosis or treatment could easily be identified, and so could the doctor who might accidentally reveal them. A good physician will not openly discuss a patient’s personal medical problems, but will instead take it to email or a phone call, rather than washing someone’s laundry in public.

● Old school will always have a place: Personal questions are best still be handled through doctor's office visits in person. So although is a great idea when you’re in a hurry and have no choice, it simply cannot replace the old-fashioned doctor’s office visit. I think most healthcare professionals will agree with that.

5. You say it’s becoming the norm: are most physicians willing to embrace social media as a way to connect with their patients?

● Old school: Obviously, nothing will ever beat the traditional office visit, when a physician can perform a thorough history and physical and really get to the heart of an issue, but sometimes that’s just not convenient.

● Our Responsibility: A physician has made an oath to care for his or her patient, just as if that patient were a member of his own family. If you’re willing to connect with family via social media, and give them your cellphone number, then the same thing should apply for the patients who are trusting you with their health and wellbeing. Our staff lives by the rule that we should treat everyone else the way we would want to be treated.

● Adapt or die: Some argue that social media puts an additional squeeze on doctors' crammed schedules. But a tweet here and Facebook post there is part of practicing medicine in today's technology-saturated society. Like the telephone, the internet and the smartphone, using social media in medicine is here to stay.

● It’s the present and the future: It's the evolution of how we communicate with each other. And I have to remind doctors that if they think they don't have time for this—and if they don't have instant access to mobile communications—they may be behind the learning curve and behind the times.

You can also connect with Dr. Saggar, the Medical Director at St. Louis Urgent Cares, and ask him any questions you like via:

Sonny Saggar MD