In a world where social distancing, PPE and the worry of a ‘second wave’ of infections have become the new normal, social media will need to rise to the challenge of becoming an even more valuable channel of communication for keeping in contact with patients and peers.
Internet and social media usage in the global pandemic
The Office of National Statistics stated that in 2019, 99% of UK adults between the ages of 16 and 44 used the internet regularly with 87% using it, including social media, every or nearly every day.1
The current global pandemic with its enforced lockdowns, reduced travel and social distancing has forced millions of us to go online to socially interact, with a huge increase in the use of video communications, for both professional and personal reasons.
The number of internet and social media users around the world has increased by more than 300 million over the past year, and social media users are up by more than 8% globally since April last year to reach 3.81 billion today. Globally the use of social media is expected to exceed 50% by the end of 2020.2
Online video platform Zoom for example, has had 200 million daily active users this spring, 20 times more than pre-pandemic levels while Facebook have experienced a 70% increase in video calls through its own apps. As a result, there’s a real likelihood that many of the social media habits that people have formed in recent months will outlast the pandemic, and become a more day to day part of our lives, and not just while we have to social distance. As such, this may give your practice team a new and more readily used route into your local community. Using live platforms on Instagram for example, or entertainment channels like TikTok that even medical professionals have engaged with for light relief, can bring generations of people together. Using video allows you into people’s homes, giving live messages so it’s important to make sure your message matters to them. Nextdoor is another app that has seen an uplift in usage, providing a platform for local people to support each other and which could be used to facilitate closer working with your local community.2,10
Rules and guidance
The GDC has professional standards for your social media use and section 4.2.3 of the Standards for the Dental Team states: ’You must not post any information or comments about patients on social networking or blogging sites. If you use professional social media to discuss anonymised cases for the purpose of discussing best practice you must be careful that the patient or patients cannot be identified.’3
The GDC provide many warnings about online behaviour, how it can be perceived by patients and other professionals and how careful you have to be to not cause offense. This is particularly relevant during such a sensitive and stressful time as the one we are currently going though, so as not to lose trust from patients or degrade your profession.4,3
Dento-legal aspects of social media
If you follow the GDC’s guidance, professional standards and general courtesies, you shouldn’t come up against anything too negative in the world of social media, because experiencing negative comments from peers or patients could cause you a great deal of upset and ultimately stress.5,7
The GDC also advises you to generally be careful with your personal and professional profiles, whether its advertising claims such as describing yourself as a specialist when you aren’t on the register, not including your GDC number or qualifications and using the term ‘doctor’ out of context or claiming that treatment would work on all patients without the evidence to back that up. You also need to bear in mind advertising standards through the ASA and CAP, along with GDPR. Many regulators however offer guidance on what they consider to be appropriate, from the more traditional ‘paid-for’ ads to advertorials and affiliate marketing, and also, since 2011, content on a company’s own social media channels.6,5,7
The professional indemnity organisations are there to offer advice and courses designed to help dental professionals use social media ethically and effectively and avoid mistakes, because medical professionals can get into trouble; between 2013 and 2018, NHS England disciplined a total of 1,200 staff for inappropriate use of social media and so knowing the rules is key to your avoidance of a similar situation.7a
Social media in dentistry
Dabbling in social media in an ad hoc way could be frustrating and not deliver the results you want, but as part of your business and marketing strategy it can be extremely beneficial in raising your personal and practice profile, and thereby your local reputation. Whether it’s practice successes or services, charity work or initiatives in your local community, it can showcase the expertise of both you and your team.5
However, you do need to have dedicated internal or external expertise so that you can create continuity and consistency by engaging with social media regularly as well as monitoring the content. Not overdoing it with hourly posts of course but rather daily or a few times a week, depending on what it is you are doing, i.e. posting, sharing or commenting, in the same way that you shouldn’t leave it unattended without posting for weeks as people will stop engaging with you. Plus you will have missed any negative comments that could damage your reputation. In this way you can create the perfect balance.
There are three main areas where social media is a useful communications tool: patient engagement, peer communications and customer service. 5,9
This can be for patient recruitment, retention and recommendation as well as generally increasing awareness of the practice. There are the more familiar platforms, for example Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but it’s worth asking your patients which form of social media they use in your patient surveys.5,9
You can join in with conversations about national or local dental campaigns such as National Smile Month, World Oral Health Day and Mouth Cancer Action Month or national health topics such as Stoptober and Dry January. You could even set up your own in your local community such as promoting donations of oral health products to the homeless or providing recycling banks for plastic oral hygiene products.
Practices can advertise promotions and campaigns and encourage new patients to register but it’s important not to be too heavy in selling. Instead give people a reason to follow and be interested in you by providing oral health guidance, personal or practice news, and the care and treatments you provide, focusing on the benefits of the treatments not just listing them.5,9
Instagram can be useful for case studies, to show ‘before and after’ photos of treatment plans (obviously only if you have permission to use them) and live and recent video testimonials. Practice and individual Facebook accounts can be used to post details of the practice team and share what’s going on at the practice. You can also join or follow local community groups and parent groups or those interested in their oral health. Altogether, these paint a picture of personal approach and being an integral part of the local community, creating a more human face to dental professionals, especially at the moment with everyone looking less human in full PPE.5,9
Whichever channel you choose, you should encourage feedback and reviews from patients as recommendations are still the biggest areas of growth for dental practices. Review the posts or ‘shares’ that your patients ‘like’, or target new patients. Share more of the content they like rather than ones that don’t get much interest, but again be careful to monitor for anything negative or potentially damaging.5,8,9
An online feed can also offer real time updates for a practice, such as a free slot because of a cancellation. Another benefit would be the option of booking appointments online through an app or on Facebook. All of this supports the new ‘normal’ in which we are living but still provides engagent.8,5,9
Professional networks and platforms like LinkedIn can be used if you are looking at giving or receiving referrals, being part of professional groups discussing products and techniques or reading relevant articles. There are also private dental groups and forums on Facebook where professionals can chat and confer about treatment choices, cases, ask questions and provide recommendations on equipment, share jobs and support each other through tough times, especially with less physical contact currently taking place.5,9
Whatever your views, it is important to be positive in your transactions with peers; you don’t want to degrade the profession with negative or shaming comments, or mistrusting the validity of case study before and after shots, for example. Some people aren’t quite as professional and can be negative and make comments that can have an impact on your confidence or how you feel, so it is important to be able to step back and not feel bullied as well as being aware of unsubstantiated news and information.4,8,5,9
Google and internet reviews, whether they are positive or negative, which unfortunately people do share, can both be useful and should be followed up by contacting the individual and finding out more information behind their comment, especially if they are unhappy as they will tell many more people than if they are happy. Spam messages and posts can also cause issues so is another reason to keep a regular eye on your social media channels so you can remove any inappropriate content.9,8,5
However, you, your practice team and your patients together get through this period of change while the world gets back on its feet, it will certainly be helped by everyone working together to ensure that we continue to communicate and support each other, whether on or off line.
References available on request.
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