It can happen to any practice at any time. Your practice is humming along like fine-tuned machine. Your schedule is booked up. Clinicians are running on time. Patients are getting the appointments they need. Everything’s working like clockwork. Then, out of the blue, boom! A story about a possible new link between a drug many of your patients rely on and a dangerous side effect blasts hits the national media. Suddenly, the hum of efficiency is replaced by the sound of phones ringing off the hook. Nervous patients are clamoring to speak with their doctors, and your staff struggles to reassure them. Patients who need appointments have trouble booking them, because your lines are overloaded. Many are frustrated because they only reach your voicemail.

Even the best-run practices can be temporarily disrupted by factors outside their control: drug and device recalls; unexpected research findings; power outages; and severe weather are just a few examples. These disruptions can be severe enough that your practice can suddenly feel very understaffed.

Of course, most of these types of unpredictable disruptions existed before the internet age. The internet has allowed news to spread more quickly, though. Sometimes, inaccurate information and questionable advice gains just as much traction as useful advice – and that can mean more nervous patients calling your practice with questions. But the good news is that when it comes to rapid communication, that same internet that spreads anxiety and uncertainty like wildfire can also help your practice spread smart answers with a lot less effort. And it can make dealing with unforeseeable problems a bit easier, by scaling your communications and allowing your patients quick access to trustworthy answers.

One of our pediatric practice clients recently faced a double whammy of communication problems. First, their phones went out. Then, in truly unlucky fashion, their website also chose that same moment to go down. They were unable to respond to phone calls and couldn’t even access their email database.

They still had a couple of resources available to them, though – and those tools turned out to be lifesavers. First, the practice had an active Facebook page. This practice had invested time in creating a page that was popular with their patients – and, as such, they could reach a significant proportion of them by posting there. Their postings could also be shared by parents with other parents who weren’t following the page directly. The practice also had a cloud-based EHR and portal that they could use to reach out to those patients who were accustomed to logging in; those patients could also book appointments online.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect solution. Many of the practice’s patients weren’t on Facebook or the portal. But they were able to reach hundreds of patients that otherwise might have not understood why they couldn’t reach the practice by phone. Much more important, the experience reinforced the practice’s commitment to using technology for communication purposes. They had already used their Facebook page for spreading helpful, evergreen articles about everything from car seat and medication recalls, to helping kids through divorce, to how to get critical prescriptions at discount prices. Now that they had seen first-hand how valuable a strong social media presence could be when the practice needed to communicate information urgently, they redoubled their efforts to inform parents about the page.

Besides the ability to get the word out quickly, your website and your social media presence allow you to easily communicate a detailed answer to a complicated question. When you practice’s clinicians are faced with the prospect of giving the same detailed answer over and over again, perhaps taking five minutes or more per call, it’s easy to see how much time sharing one complete, clear answer via social media and your website can save. And not just for your practice: patients will value the convenience of getting their questions answered without a phone call, too.

Our client practice has found another great way to extend that efficiency: sharing articles written by other pediatricians their practice’s clinicians trust. This technique allows them to get vetted information in front of their patients with just a few minutes’ effort. Of course, as they help distribute quality information from other practices they trust, they are also building a network of trusted, go-to information sources for patients. Plus, the practice’s own articles can be shared by their “partner” practices, too – effectively divvying up the workload of keeping parents informed. Using the web and social media, they’re all informally helping each other to create a more visible, followed, and useful web media presence.

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