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Monday Jul 02, 2012

Physician, Google Thyself: Know What's Being Said About You Online

How often do you run a Google search for your own name? Do you actually know what the public -- and potential patients or employers -- are reading about you?

For doctors, it's no longer a question of if you have a presence online. Physician rating websites, where anyone can offer a review of your services, have been around for years. Now product review giant Consumer Reports is partnering with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Aligning Forces for Quality Initiative to offer online information about quality and satisfaction with primary care doctors. The project already has published ratings for roughly 500 primary care physicians in Massachusetts and plans to expand to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

With increasing demands for transparency and quality reporting from payers, expect initiatives like this to become more common. Fortunately, as physicians we are not at the mercy of every disgruntled patient's whim. There are ways we can protect our personal reputations and promote our businesses even in the Internet's untamed wilderness.

The first, most important step is to generate positive content. You will have an online presence, whether you contribute content or not. If you don't define your online identity, somebody else will define it for you.

Creating your own positive online presence can take many forms. The easiest way is to participate in social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You don't have to use these platforms every day, but it doesn't take long to create your profile and populate your page with information about your credentials, achievements and interests.

If you sign into AAFP Connection (click on "Make Your Connections" and log in with your AAFP member ID) you can access guides the Academy has developed for Facebook and Twitter as well as a best practices guide for social media in general. (Those documents were developed for AAFP staff who use social media on behalf of the Academy, but the information could benefit members, too.)

If you don't want to share personal information in social media, try posting seasonally-appropriate links to patient information from FamilyDoctor.org or another trusted site. One note: Always make sure your social media passwords are secure.

Most family physicians are already involved in a variety of charitable and community organizations, and you can generate positive mentions by making sure your name shows up on the websites of the groups you are involved with. The more times your identity appears with search-engine-friendly content that you control, the less power any negative reviews will wield.

If you have a little more time, do some writing. Volunteer to contribute to the blog of an organization you care about, or if you're really motivated, start a blog for your own practice and update it regularly. Do you work for a large hospital or health system? Chances are it has a website that is always hungry for new and interesting content; why not offer to write an article about one of your own passions or to be the subject of a human-interest feature story?

Second, make a good-faith attempt to correct anything you find online that is incorrect. If a blog or a news organization reports false information, most of the time, a simple note or phone call will correct it. Always be polite and cheerfully persistent with media organizations because being confrontational will only invite more negative coverage. If a friend or acquaintance has published an unflattering or potentially damaging photo of you, politely ask for it to be removed. (And those pictures you have from your own bachelor party? They should probably not go up on your Facebook wall.) If you want to know more about professionalism and social media, check out the AMA's guidance on the issue.

Of course, some online content is nothing but opinion, and you have little recourse there. Still, even patient-review websites will sometimes allow you to control your profile: take advantage of this opportunity, again, to advertise factual information about your achievements, awards and the like.

Finally, and this is really important, everything you say online is public. Don't use your Facebook or Twitter account to post derogatory or inflammatory content. There is always a lot of kerfuffle about the latest changes to Facebook privacy policies and so on, but really, none of it matters. Everything you put on the Internet is just as public as if you shouted it in the town square. You cannot control who hears, who records or who repeats what you say, and don't ever let a privacy policy give you the false assurance that you can.

For better or for worse, today's Internet is chock-full of unregulated content, and some of it is about you. It is worth your time to make sure that the image the world sees online is the one you wish to project.

Robyn Liu, M.D., M.P.H., of Portland, Ore., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.