Over the past decade, social media has exploded to be part of our everyday lives. On a personal-use level, these channels can be the easiest, low-effort way to keep tabs on family and friends, grab a soundbite of daily news, or see what specials are offered that week at your favorite local restaurant. There seems to be a new platform or feature to experiment with every 6 months, and it can be overwhelming to keep track of how things work or which hashtags are popular. When your focus is on getting patients to feel their best, improving your likes and follows can fall to the backburner. Social media, though, can be a useful addition and worthwhile investment if you know a few tips and tricks.
“Starting a new practice in the time of COVID without being able to host events was somewhat rough,” said Sheila Farhang, MD. “Social media was helpful as another avenue to connect to other area businesses and begin to build out a following at a local level.”
Dr Farhang is a board-certified dermatologist, Mohs surgeon, and founder and chief executive officer of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics in Tucson, AZ. In addition to running her new practice, she is also a co-founder of Vispera Health, a telehealth service. She serves as a media expert for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and is heavily involved in a number of other dermatologic societies. In an interview with The Dermatologist, she shared some important tips on using social media as a board-certified expert in skin health.
Identifying Your Brand
“I’m a millennial, so I have been active on social media for more than 15 years and have had my primary social media account (@dr.sheila_derm) for about 6 years now,” said Dr Farhang. She explained that in the early going, while she was still in training, there were few physicians with a strong online presence like seen virtually today. Developing a voice—or branding—in a new space required careful planning to set the desired tone, one that conveys the highest level of expertise in skin health and care. “Coming into this new space, I was careful about what I posted, essentially sticking to generic skin tips here and there,” Dr Farhang continued.
When first branching out professionally on social media, there are a few key terms and concepts to understand (Table).1,2 The basic ones, such as followers and posts, are easy to understand. For dermatologists, ideally, their followers are potential patients, and most personal social media users are familiar with the concept of a hashtag. Terms such as organic reach, engagement, and impressions are key in guiding your strategy of how to address your followers, from the tone of your posts to the types of content you feature.
Dr Farhang evolved her strategy over the year, ultimately defining what has now become her personal brand. “Over the years, my posts have evolved to include more about me, my life, my business and practice as a Mohs and cosmetic surgeon, and female empowerment. What has resonated most with my followers were these more personal looks into my life. Those posts had more engagement than the generic posts about dry skin or acne. With that knowledge, I ran with it, and I think that is partly why my Instagram, in particular, is doing really well with almost 100,000 followers. They get an inside look of who I am and what my day-to-day life is like as a dermatologist and practice owner.”
Dr Farhang explained that she separates her content into two accounts on Instagram: one that serves more for personal branding, and the other for her practice, which newly opened earlier in the pandemic. Each account has a different purpose and aesthetic, fulfilling different needs for marketing and promotion of Dr Farhang’s practice. To start building out their branding, dermatologists should consider these elements across their selected platforms:
A consistent logo or icon image, color palette, and handle
Key terms that help set the tone of your posts (eg, patient vs client)
The target audience or followers (eg, location, age range, income).3
Once the scope of the branding has been established, creating a content schedule or using tools such as Hootsuite, Buffer, or Sprout can be helpful in consistently posting to these channels. If the accounts are representative of the practice rather than personal, then a designated staff member who can assist in content creation and scheduling may reduce some of the required legwork.
Further, dermatologists should remember that each platform is more popular among different age demographics. “Instagram helps with reaching a younger generation who wants to focus on enhancing features such as the lips,” explained Dr Farhang, “whereas Facebook can work a bit better due to stronger geotargeting options for the mature patient.” Channels such as Instagram and TikTok are highly visual, using photos or short videos, and tend to be more popular among Gen Z and Millenial patients, whereas Facebook, which can use photos but text-based content is common as well, is more commonly used to connect the Gen X and Boomer generations.3
Dr Farhang noted that finding the time to develop the content can be difficult to do. “Consistently posting does not come easy, that is for sure! Much of my activity on social is done after hours because it is the best time I have to work on some of my initiatives. I personally like to drive everything 100% myself to keep the account true to myself. I do not delegate because I think, especially in the beginning, it is important to establish the account as a showcase for yourself and your practice.”
When it comes to the business account, she explained that she tries to delegate this work to a staff member. “I find it hard to not micromanage [the business account], because I want to be sure it is authentic to who I am as a physician. I’m actively engaged in determining the aesthetic of the account and the in- formation we share through it.”
But is the return on investment (ROI) worth it? Recent research has started to examine the potential associations or correlations between social media use by dermatology providers, patient consumption, and business growth. A survey of 715 patients found that social media was only marginally important to the majority of respondents.5 Another survey of 365 patients found that only 21% of participants used social media to find their dermatologist to address their medical or cosmetic concerns, instead preferring word-of-mouth from friends or family.6 Participants in a third survey by Schoenberg et al7 indicated they never even see a dermatologist after consulting social media for their medical concerns and/or professional advice. The current look into ROI may make it seem like social media is not worth the effort, but Dr Farhang explained that these platforms can serve another purpose than driving business.
“Do all of my followers translate into patients coming through the door? Absolutely not,” she said. “In fact, patients who come in for general dermatology, cosmetics, or for Mohs micrographic surgery, who tend to be a little more mature, are not really the right demographic for Instagram.
“However, have all those followers helped me with national media attention, reaching audiences on national television shows such as Dr. Oz and The Doctors? Has it allowed me to represent dermatology as a practice being a skin health and beauty expert? Absolutely! I think more dermatologists should use platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to help promote the specialty rather than focus on bringing patients into the office.”
Patient Education and Fighting Misinformation
The idea that social media serves a greater purpose than simply advertising the practice is a strategic tenet that all dermatologists can keep in mind for their platforms. Dr Farhang noted that the pandemic illuminated the relationship between social media and medical information.
“One of my main reasons [for using social media], and I think many dermatologists active on social out there will agree with this, is to disseminate the correction information and debunk the bad myths out there. We especially see a lot of disinformation out on TikTok with DIY treatments and whatnot. It is important that we get medically sound and evidence-based information out there in a way that uplifts our field.”
Along with looking at whether social media drives business, research has explored the dermatologic information circulating on these channels.8-14 While dermatologists may be increasingly active on social media, there are still a number of top profiles that are run by non-health care professionals, potentially problematic if the information they share is not backed by evidence. Dr Farhang said this is where dermatologists can be active in promoting the specialty and educating patients.
“I am involved in several social media initiative organizations, and for the Future Leaders Network, my project was on social media for the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery [ASDS]. Through my research, I have noticed that some dermatologists get into trouble when they compare themselves or state their superiority to these non-physicians—it does not look great for the field to take this approach.
“I know it can be frustrating to see so many non-experts making big splashes and potentially spread incorrect information, but we must do our best to stay professional. We should focus on our years of training and on being the expert. These buzzwords are beginning to catch on, and the more popularity and weight they carry, the more patients or users will begin to check if the source giving them information in a post has an expert background.”
An increased presence of dermatologists showing their expertise on social media may begin to translate into an emphasis on education and training. “Especially in the past few years, there has seemed to be an almost antidoctor-like movement, where patients think that we are so deeply connected to pharma and other similarly negative perceptions,” said Dr Farhang. “We should focus on highlighting that we are real people too, we have personalities, we are trustworthy, and we are here to help patients feel their best.”
From a patient perspective, it can be difficult to see dermatologist in many areas, let alone costs for treatment, insurance, and other factors. Connecting with patients through social media on a more personal level may help build the patient-provider relationship before they even step into the office. “If we can offer small, digestible tidbits of evidence-based education (with appropriate disclaimers as needed), we can help improve patient trust. In addition, it can help patients realize when to see a dermatologist. Many patients are not aware that we are also hair and nail experts, and we can highlight that throughout our social media.”
Resources for Derms
Dermatologists have a number tools at their disposal to help build up their social media game. For example, Dr Farhang shared that she serves as a social media ambassador for the AAD, ASDS, and Women’s Dermatologic Society. “We continue to create content for dermatologists to use. You can use these pre-created posts as a launch pad for your account. I definitely recommend checking out their member resources for some help!”
Conferences are also starting to catch on to the role social media can play in the specialty. Lectures from different experts can spark creativity for new content ideas and user engagement, and it can be a shortcut to spending hours on end scrolling through all of colleagues’ accounts. In fact, Dr Farhang recently presented at a conference about her experience with social media, offering a few tricks and pearls for attendees. One of her tips is to consult someone you trust, such as a staff member or an outside service, to help set up accounts and continually review them. However, she cautioned against completely removing yourself from the process, as dermatologists can really become the ultimate skinfluencer through social media.
“At the end of the day, the account represents and is a portrayal of you. Our patients and social media users are smart; they can tell if it is not you driving the content or replying to some comments. You can entertain and be outgoing, or you can be facts-focused and serious, but let your account reflect who you are as a person and as a dermatologist.”
Editor’s Note: Dr Farhang can be found on Instagram at @dr.sheila_derm and @avantdermatology.
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