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Is social media the best medicine for doctors?

21 July 2014 | 10:00 am

The BBC reported yesterday that research conducted by Plymouth University had identified a number of trends that they believe have led to the increase in the number of complaints against doctors.  The research was conducted against the backdrop of what appears to have been a doubling of complaints from 5k in 2007 to over 10k within five years.

The research is said to have identified the web as a key contributor to complaints. Apparently, we have more access to information and higher expectation levels than ever before about the medical profession.  And those of us who have visited a doctor in the past year would probably admit to being guilty of having a quick search pre-appointment to second guess what the doctor was going to say and do. Not to mention the post appointment googling (other brands are available) within minutes of leaving the surgery to see if we can undermine the diagnosis the doctor gave us?

Our thoughts go out to the General Medical Council (GMC) who find themselves in the position of reassuring the public that despite the statistics that this in no way indicates falling standards.

So in our blog today we offer the GMC a major line of defence.  Our insight is not based on medical standards, medical practice or doctors in general. Just good old fashioned marketing theory!

Chartered Marketeers spend many hours studying the theory of Post Cognitive (or Purchase) Dissonance i.e. the mental stress experienced by an individual when they have weighed up the odds, made a big decision and in marketing terms ‘purchased’ something.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that money needs to change hands. Volunteers, who give up their free time to help others often suffer from the same psychological wrangling.  Initially, they look for reassurance that they have made the right decision, if they don’t find that reassurance they start to pull the decision to pieces – should they be spending more time with the kids? the family? What if these people don’t appreciate them? Etc.

We know that dissonance is often exaggerated when the stakes are high and this can be considered in monetary terms, personal time and energy or even in terms of reputation.

Anyone who has ever worked in the automotive sector knows that millions of pounds are spent ‘reassuring people’ who have invested many pounds of hard earned cash into their new car.

Statistically, a new car owner is more likely to notice billboards carrying car adverts as they drive off the forecourt in their new pride and joy.  They are more likely to ask their mate in the pub what petrol consumption they get (to compare) and ridiculous as it seems - check on comparison websites!

New car owners receive customer satisfaction calls, newsletters and even Christmas cards! The result of an over excitable marketing team? Nope! It is a sign that the marketing team know and understand the mental turmoil that the car owner goes through and is desperately trying to counter with lots of messages of positivity about the car, the dealer and the customer!

Now we are not suggesting that NHS resources are focussed on post cognitive dissonance marketing (although perhaps if they had the complaint stats wouldn’t have rocketed). However, some lessons could most certainly be applied from the marketing discipline.

Where our personal health is in the balance, the stakes are rightly high and we are just (if not more) likely to suffer with the same cognitive dissonance characteristics when we leave the doctors surgery.  The ‘purchase’ – or in this case ‘the diagnosis’ is high involvement (apologies for another marketing term) and needs major brain processing so we seek out significant quantities of information to help us process it.

What does this mean? It means that post visit we need reassurance to help us to control our cognitive dissonance.  So where do we go – the forums? We listen to social media chatter on key topics – from seasonal affective disorder to signs of mumps the social media channels are rife with opinions and sadly all too often delivered by unqualified or vetted spokespeople with forums left unmoderated.

And our search (sometimes panic) doesn't just stop on UK shores as at the click of a button we can visit doctors (of all kinds – even the non medicinal ones) across the planet for their opinions and in many cases their potions and mantras will undermine the doctor that we've just visited.

So it’s no surprise that Plymouth University identified that in addition to the world wide web, that social media is playing a significant role in increasing complaints.  After all social media gives patients significant reach potential and communication channels to ask questions and get crowd sourced diagnosis.

They can feed their post diagnosis dissonance with rafts of content from Youtube, share links on facebook timelines and signpost with Twitter.  The snowball effect is underway and will need some clever countering to bring it into check.

So what is the answer for the poor doctors who can do no right for wrong in the modern complaining age?  Or the General Medical Council who are having to reassure the public that the statistics are not driven through a drop in standards?

Our advice would be:

1)     Accept patients will look – the psychology of the situation means they are going to look – accepting this is part of the solution.

2)     Tackle dissonance head on - signpost patients to the best sources of information for their condition. Make it easier for them to identify the right forums, where moderation is dealt with by trained medics to reinforce rather than undermine the diagnosis.

3)     Keep in touch - encourage surgeries to up the anti in post visit communication – newsletters, social media updates with better marketing promotion of preventative measures.

4)     Share quality knowledge - encourage doctors to create blogs and content on some of the common ailments and issues which people can share that no only build reputation but help with useful information.

5)     Share the good stuff – share awards, updates on health prevention and support available.  And why not make patients into ambassadors and encourage them to use the social media channels in a positive way.

One final point is that we are in the era of the silver surfer. Social media usage in the over 60s has rocketed over the past 12 months.  The reality is that many of these silver surfers are heading for the doctors day in day out, creating a greater opportunity for the medical profession to harness the opportunity.

CrowdControlHQ is the UK’s leading social media risk management and compliance platform, enabling NHS teams across Britain to engage with the community, delivering large scale public health campaigns and sophisticated risk management tools to enable more members of the team to join in and contribute to the conversation.

Michelle Leavesley
Marketing Director
Lecturer in MSc Marketing at Birmingham Business School

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