Aware of the limited amount of reliable data about physicians online, many practices have decided to cut out the middleman and market their services to patients directly. Increasingly, practice websites contain more than basic information such as contact phone numbers and hours of operation. For example, Maryland's Potomac Physician Associates maintains separate web pages for each their three offices that contain physician biographies, a list of accepted health insurance plans, and FAQs such as guidance for caring for a child at home with H1N1 influenza.
Patient First, which operates multiple offices in Virginia and Maryland, displays each doctor’s schedule and offers links to news items about the practice and the websites of authoritative government and private health organizations. A primary care house call practice for the homebound elderly in Washington, DC posted an award-winning YouTube video describing the benefits of its services on patients’ lives.
Even for family physicians who don’t have the time or resources to incorporate many bells and whistles into a practice web page, it is a simple matter to refer patients to social media sources that can help them to stay healthy. The various institutes of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality all maintain active Twitter and/or Facebook accounts to rapidly disseminate breaking news and other information relevant to patient care.
Preventive counseling to promote healthy and discourage unhealthy lifestyle behaviors lends itself especially well to “micro-blogging.” Smokers who are seeking support to quit the habit can exchange tips with thousands of fellow nicotine addicts at http://www.twitter.com/quitsmoking123; patients with alcohol problems can join a “virtual AA group” at http://www.twitter.com/alcoholicsanony; and anyone interested in improving their physical fitness can find lifestyle coaches and personal trainers at http://wefollow.com/twitter/exercise.
While it is difficult to forecast the directions in which online patient-physician interactions will evolve in the future, one lesson is already abundantly clear: establishing an interactive, informative online presence is far more likely to recruit and retain satisfied patients than leaving one’s reputation to the mercy of doctor rating websites.