Building Your Digital Presence as a Surgeon

By Thomas K. Varghese Jr., MD, MS

July 19, 2018

If someone can’t find you on the internet, do you exist?

Admittedly a tongue-in-cheek statement, the rise of the internet and associated technology supporting one’s digital presence is one of the most transformative efforts in the modern era. So why should you engage? 

It is estimated that about half of the world’s 7.6 billion people has access to the internet, and 1-in-3 uses social media (2.34 billion). In the US, 81% of the population has at least one social media account (264 million). 

Most individuals view the impact of the internet and other digital technologies on their lives in largely positive ways, but the degree of positivity has been declining in recent years. Positive views of the internet often are tied to information access and connecting with others. The most common negative comment is that the internet prohibits face-to-face interactions and encourages people to spend too much time with their devices. 

In other words, we are more globally connected than ever, but how we interact socially continues to change. Your patients, colleagues, family, neighbors, and communities are all evolving in the way that they receive and transmit information. “Word of mouth” may become a phrase confined to the pages of history. 

Your patients, colleagues, family, neighbors, and communities are all evolving in the way that they receive and transmit information. “Word of mouth” may become a phrase confined to the pages of history. 

Using the Internet for Health Information

The internet provides access to health information ranging from factsheets to surgical videos. A vast majority of internet users in the US have reported searching for health information online, including on social media. A 2013 systematic review found that social media was used to:

  • Provide health information on a range of conditions
  • Provide answers to medical questions
  • Facilitate patient-to-patient and patient-to-health professional dialogue
  • Collect data on patient experiences and opinions
  • Encourage health intervention, health promotion, and health education
  • Reduce illness stigma
  • Provide online consultations

Steps to Enhance Your Digital Footprint

Sadly, human beings are more likely to tell their social circles about a negative experience than a positive one. Innuendos, bad news, and character assassinations travel the fastest in the digital world. The best proactive method is to take ownership of your digital presence and footprint.

Your digital footprint includes profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and similar platforms, photographs of you that have been posted online, and anything that you have written or that has been written about you in forums such as discussion boards, blogs, or news articles. 

The following steps can help you build a solid online reputation:

1. Follow professional guidelines. Your employer should have professionalism and social media policies. Make sure to thoroughly read and follow these policies. Although health care organizations want you to succeed, they will always protect the organization if there is ever a situation of uncertainty. You have to manage your reputation. The brand is you. 

In 2010, the American Medical Association became the first health care professional body to adopt social media guidelines, with others quickly following. The most common theme across these organizations was the importance of adhering to existing ethical and legal standards, with an emphasis on protecting patient privacy and confidentiality within online forums. 

2. Take a look at your existing online presence. When you search for your name, what pops up? Are there any negative reports, incidents, or reviews? Dr. Sean Langenfeld and colleagues at the University of Nebraska have explored the topic of unprofessional behavior among surgical trainees and practicing surgeons, and the findings are eye-opening. Although unprofessional behavior online was less common among attendings than trainees and the overall rate was low (approximately 10% of those with an online presence), examples of unprofessional behavior included photos of binge drinking, sexually suggestive photos, and clear HIPAA violations. A fascinating aspect was the gender predominance among faculty—the clearly unprofessional behavior was seen only in male surgeons. 

Increasingly, program directors and employers are screening social media accounts as part of the job interview and credentialing processes. Hopefully you don’t have a damaging digital footprint. If you do, get professional assistance to clean it up. The surgeon of the future won’t be able to survive with an overwhelmingly negative profile. 

3. Build a positive profile. The vast majority of surgeons have a minimal digital presence. Start with your institution’s homepage. Ask how to display information so that it is in the best light. Patients like to see their surgeons; make sure you have a professional headshot displayed on the website. 

Ensure that your CTSNet profile is up to date with your credentials and current place of employment. An online profile that includes your CV on a professional networking site such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or Medium can expand your range of contacts.

As with any effort, strategic engagement will bring about the best results. Additional tips include:

  • Define your goals and objectives.
  • Protect patient privacy and confidentiality at all times.
  • Physicians are held to much higher standards than all other professions. It isn’t even close. Remember this at all times. 
  • Be honest, share good health care information and refute bad information, be respectful, and correctly attribute shared content. 
  • Consistently monitor your digital presence.
  • Enjoy the interactions.

We are in the early days of learning how one’s digital presence can affect his or her surgical career. Your patients and communities are online, constantly searching for the best information, and seeking to connect with the best and brightest. Shouldn’t you be there too?

Connect with Dr. Varghese @TomVargheseJr. You also can get news and updates from the Society on any of its social media channels.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

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