Experts weigh in on dental practice social media policies

Dental patients are online and use that forum to share their experience whether dentists choose to embrace social media or not – that is the reality in today’s Internet age.

A dentist’s online reputation and presence can be powerful marketing tools, both personally and professionally, and platforms such as Google Places, Facebook Places, Yelp and Foursquare have grown at exponential rates in recent years. With an online presence comes responsibility and the possibility of negative reviews, however. The best way to protect a dentist’s online reputation is for them to have a proactive and engaged online presence.

That starts with a practice developing a social media policy for the office, says Patrick Barry, CEO of CDA Endorsed Program Demandforce.

“The dentist has to be the one to set up the practice’s social media policy,” Barry said. “If there is a partnership, the partners should have a discussion about it. Whomever the business owner is should be in charge of the policy.”

Barry said a dental practice should treat a social media policy like any other internal policy and that it needs to be agreed upon by all partners and staff. 

Here is what Barry says should go into a social media policy:

  • who is going to manage the practice’s social media presence;
  • how much the dentist(s) wants to participate in the posting of content;
  • what social media sites and services the practice will participate in; and
  • what subject matter is appropriate.

Subject matter is key, says Sherry Mostofi of Mostofi Law Group.

“The online presence of a practice is critical to its reputation and could cause legal liability. The management of the online presence of a dental practice is not an aspect of the business that can be delegated to a third party, such as an employee or a marketing company, without putting in place strict policies on the type content that can be posted,” said Mostofi, who has lectured on social media and will lead a course at CDA Presents Anaheim in April.

As part of a practice’s social media policy, Mostofi recommends dentists put together an outline of “example” social media posts for their staff. In order to properly guide the party who is handling the practice's online presence, such a policy should include detailed information and examples of permissible posts.  The number of examples included in the outline will vary according to the extent of the practice's desire to be present on the Internet, but should  include a minimum of about 25 to 50 examples, Mostofi said.

The next step to take after developing a policy is to designate someone to run the practice’s social media presence.

Barry says to choose wisely.

“You look for someone who is trustworthy and well-established in the practice because it’s a little more difficult for a new employee to take on,” Barry said. “Look for someone who uses social media and enjoys it; someone who has a good personality and an interesting way of saying things; someone who is a good writer and is funny and social.”

The person who is selected should be knowledgeable of the ways of the practice and liability risks. Staff may respond to a negative review with the best intentions, but it is recommended that they are made aware of patient privacy risks and office liability for all content and communications on behalf of the practice.  

“It’s important to follow proper protocol because many legal aspects can come into play with online posts; the risk of HIPAA violations and the myriad other potential legal liabilities may present themselves,” Mostofi said.

Mostofi says the person in control of the accounts should be made aware of the following:

• posting  information about patients including names, pictures and testimonials without the  proper consents could constitute violations of HIPAA and California law;
• the definition of fee splitting; and
• copyright laws in terms of using statistics and photos from outside sources without providing the proper references to those sources.

According to the CDA Practice Support Center’s Guide for the New Dentist, which has a chapter dedicated to social media, copyright laws protect photos, videos, graphics, music and text published on the Internet. Citing or crediting the original copyright owner does not grant freedom to use content without obtaining documented permission to do so. Even “shareware” or “royalty-free” media such as clip art requires users to read and accept the terms of use agreement. Dentists should review the provisions of any user agreement to ensure they do not use material in a way that violates the contract.

Barry says to also stay away from product pitches.

“Avoid pitches for products or services because your services should stand on their own. You expose yourself to saying things that are not true,” Barry said.

Having information and content that is current and without typos also is important.

The Guide recommends dentists ensure any official account is created under their name, e-mail and security settings. Otherwise, the control of their online presence may not stay with their practice if an employee leaves.

In terms of setting up social media accounts, Mostofi recommends dentists create the accounts under the legal name they have established for their operations.  For example, an individual who operates under a corporate entity should create any social media accounts under that corporate title. 

“If you present yourself as a corporation, then that’s how your account should be set up. If you practice under a fictitious business name that you filed at the county level and obtained a permit through the Dental Board for, then that should be the name on the account. A clear demarcation between personal and business operations needs to be in place,” Mostofi said.

When asked how social media is done “right” in a dental practice, Barry said it needs to be “engaging and interesting.” 

“You need to make an actual effort to post interesting content to be engaging and funny,” Barry said. “The dental office is an extension of family in many cases, so it makes perfect sense for there to be a social connection there because it creates long-term relationships and that’s good for retention.”

Mostofi reminds dentists and their staff to follow a policy that will keep the practice out of any legal predicaments.  

“Social media has to be a highly controlled aspect of marketing. It can be effective in promoting your online presence but only to the extent that it doesn’t create liabilities for your practice,” Mostofi said.

For more information about using social media in the dental practice, check out the Guide for the New Dentist. Members also can call the TDIC Risk Management Advice Line at 800.733.0634 for personal support from risk management experts.