Do Doctors Text?

Doctor texting on smartphone

Physician text thyself

In ancient times–which in the Internet era means before 2005–it was widely believed that physicians, nurses, technologists, clinicians, and other healthcare professionals had limited computer skills and no interest in technological geekery. It was easy to support this belief. Physicians and their ilk were mainly running around hospitals or seeing patients in clinics and in the era of desktop or laptop computing, that meant they had limited access to their computer screens. Smartphones and other portable devices changed that.

Physicians were quick to embrace cell phone technology, but they saw cell phones as portable phones. The advent and preposterous development of handheld devices (remember the old Palm Pilots with the little stylus and the secret alphabet you had to memorize?) was not something the average clinician had time for.

Social media has mainly bypassed doctors, since the time-deprived have little interest in devoting their precious few spare moments to find out what their acquaintances had for lunch. The emergence of Facebook, Twitter, and other things was regarded by physicians as roughly equivalent to video games or those automatic vacuum robots they sell on TV, that is to say, interesting technological developments of no direct impact. Doctors who found such social media engaging were often more interested in the technology, per se, than using it in any practical way.

Smart phones are going to change all that. First of all, doctors already love cell phones. I don’t know a single physician–academic, in practice, or retired–who does not carry one with him or her every minute. The higher price tag for smartphones is not much of a barrier to doctors and smartphone prices are coming down every day. When a fourth grader can manage to get an iPhone, so can the average physician.

The question is going to be whether doctors realize that the cool new phone they are carrying can do things beyond just conveying voice. Statistics on cell phone use patterns hold that Americans text more than they call on their mobile devices. I do not know if anyone has broken out the statistics by profession, but I am not convinced this general pattern holds for physicians. Physicians may still be using their smartphones to make voice calls.

It used to be that mobile marketing and medical marketing were two entirely different species, like camels and whales. Will we ever see them come together?  Will there ever be mobile medical marketing? Will doctors ever text? There are some drivers that are going to push even the overworked, patient-focused physician forward into new technology and new social media.

1. Mobile medical marketing is going to start with how patients find doctors. Patients are already searching for physicians from their smartphones. They already review doctors on Yelp and other sites. Doctors are going to realize that ads in newspapers and traditional referrals are fizzling out and establish some mobile presence.

2. Doctors live in a litigious world that is quite different from the world of the average patient. This makes physicians skittish about e-mail communications with patients, and texting is going to give them apoplexy. Doctors are not going to use these media to communicate directly with patients.

3. This does not mean that doctors will not text or use these media to communicate with staff, family, friends, meeting or conference organizers, and some of the professionals in their lives, like insurance representatives or accountants. But relegating texting and other social media communications to these spheres means that doctors are not going to take it very seriously as a professional medium. They’ll view it as something both fun and convenient, but not something professional.

4. About half of all physicians in private practice do not have a website. This seems odd to me, because 12-year-old boys have their own websites. This will change, because having an online presence is kind of the foundation of the whole mobile marketing pyramid. You need the foundation. Are websites important? People do not spend a lot of time on websites–the average stay on most medical websites has to be seconds (that is, not even a minute). However, people do visit websites. This means that physicians need a website, but they do not necessarily need a thorough website.

5. Half of all Google searches are now done on mobile devices. This means that the doctor-without-a-website also needs a mobile site or half of the people who might try to access his site are going to have a suboptimal experience. I don’t know about you but when I search for something on my smartphone and I get the traditional website that I have to enlarge and then push around the phone screen, I generally give up in about two seconds.  Today’s physician trying to build or maintain a practice needs a mobile and a traditional online presence.

6. Much of social media is stupid, and doctors are usually not attracted to stupid things. Doctors will never be wowed with Farmville or posting photo albums of your dinner at the Mexican restaurant last night. Doctors probably find it more efficient to call and speak to a person than to text a message on an itty-bitty keypad and then wait till the phone goes off with the response. But doctors are going to get the message in a big way as marketing to patient shifts from traditional print to online to mobile.

7. Last but not least, patients are changing. That’s right. Today, a patient is less likely to have a single physician or anyone close to the old family doctor of Norman Rockville paintings. Many patients like to call themselves empowered because they take an active role in their healthcare decisions. Modern patients are more likely to learn about their disease or condition. Today, the average patient with a credit card has all of the information of all of the medical libraries in the world at his or her fingertips–more than Hippocrates or Marcus Wellby ever had. Patients are getting used to partnering with physicians and to seeking out specialists. This means patients are going to approach the whole concept of finding a doctor in a different way, and they will use different tools.

Doctors are different. They live in a time-stressed, highly regulated, litigious world that influences their choices of communications channels. That is unlikely to change. It is very unlikely that Dr. Johnson will text Dr. Robinson in surgery to find out how the surgery is going. Dr. Robinson will not be posting images of Mrs. Harris’s liver tumor on his Facebook page. Dr. Smith won’t be texting her patients to tell them she’s running a little late this morning.  It is unreasonable to expect that Dr. Marshall will blog about her patient’s really bizarre side effects or that Nurse Samuels will Tweet how cute she thinks the new patient in Room 412 is.

But technology is more than that. Mobile medical marketing is going to hit doctors in terms of presenting the best and most efficient face to the world. It’s about advertising, promotion, and marketing. Smart doctors may never text, but they’ll set up a mobile presence for their practice.