Attract patients by getting ‘emotional’

How ‘social’ are you? Marketing expert Catherine Harriss examines the huge part harnessing social media can play in helping create a more successful private practice.

Advertising on social media has often been seen as a way to promote business. But, for all the major social media companies, revenue is falling dramatically. 

In part, this is claimed to be due to the economic climate of rising inflation, interest rates and so on, but there is still plenty of money about. People have not stopped spending. 

Growth has slowed down, but the main reason that the decline in social advertising is happening is due to the massive number of us who have smartphones. Since 2021, it has been possible to opt out of data tracking on an iPhone and now only around 16% of owners allow their data to be tracked. 

This means that although advertising on Facebook or other social media channels can be highly focused on an individual, because of Apple’s ability to give users the option, around 84% of iPhone owners are not receiving targeted ads, so are missing from a target population.

Social advertising

Now in the UK, iPhone use is rising and it is still an aspirational product too. My electronic engineer son would say that this is due to iPhone finally becoming more like an Android in speed and usability. 

Looking back at my previous article for Independent Practitioner Today in April 2015, I suggested that social advertising should be encouraged to get around the many algorithm changes on Facebook and be seen by your perfect potential patients. 

I would not be so hasty today, but would instead recommend ‘boosts’ of posts to those people who have ‘liked’ your page. There is a greater chance that money spent in this way will get to them. 

Social conversions

If a website is performing well, then it should be attracting new business. A new visitor should be encouraged to complete a form of inquiry so that the process of meeting their needs can begin. 

There are various ways this can be done, but, remember, the fewer keystrokes the better. Amazon may not be your preferred shopping portal, but it has researched how easy the buying process needs to be. The same applies to your website: make it easy.

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and more have all made it very easy to enable purchases. I have linked up booking systems to social media sites and websites to enable potential patients to book in easily. 

Remembering that our attention span is still falling – it is now less than a goldfish – there is now a window of four seconds or thereabouts for someone moving from a social media site to your website and sending a request for information email. Keep it simple too. 

Is there a button to link up to your website? If someone has to type to search, the chances are they will move on to another site. If a user cannot find what they want on your site within seconds, they will move. 

What will make them stay, and I have seen this many times, is an emotional story either in the written word or via video. 

Emotions sell products and – as in the example of Nike (see the box below) – remember that much of healthcare is about emotions. Emotions really are a driving force for care and treatment. I will talk more about this later.

Social stars

In 2015, I wrote about the use of Google stars. These are stars allocated according to Google’s algorithm to a user review and, to use the well-known phrase, ‘stars mean prizes’. 

The prize of acquiring Google Stars is higher visibility on Google and this is still true today. It is sobering to know that 48% of consumers will not consider a business/practitioner with less than four stars with the maximum number available being five. 

Seeking reviews via Google will always be helpful, as they help your website ranking and boost credibility along with trustworth­iness. 

It is straightforward to write the review; you just have to ask. As you will have provided a high-quality service, it is highly likely you will obtain at least four stars and, hopefully in the majority of cases, five stars.

Obtaining likes on Facebook will be advantageous, as they show that others also like what you have to offer and these likes also help your reputation. Likewise, followers on Instagram work in the same way, building communities of like-minded people.

Now more than ever, there is a link in the user’s mind between the number of reviews, the number of stars, the number of likes and the number of followers. The more there are, the more they will notice and the more they will take note of what everyone who has reviewed, liked and followed before them has to say.

Social customer service

Over the last ten years, an increasingly significant amount of my time has been spent on Facebook and Instagram monitoring and responding to private questions from potential and past patients, thus providing a personalised service. 

In this world of bots and virtual assistants that we have all encountered when all you want is a human, the ability to respond quickly to a question is vital. 

It conveys competence, care and understanding. 65% of millennials and 42% of adults think it’s appropriate to contact their doctor through social media with a concern. 32% took a health-related action based on information they found on these platforms.

Over the past few years, I have found myself going to social media to find a quick solution to my problem and my experience has been mirrored with my clients. The outcome of this faster, personal service is the building of customer relationships. 

I have noticed that, for my clients, tight-knit helpful communities have been built and these support and provide opportunities for interaction between patients past, present and future. It is also an ideal opportunity to prevent ‘Chinese whispers’ and correct any false beliefs.

Quick answers wanted

Increasingly, patients want quick answers. Quick answers increase confidence and help them make the right decision for them. 

Medical secretaries still play a vital role, but too often the number of emails and tasks that they have to do means that there is a time delay through no fault of their own. 

Responding via social media does mean that patients do expect quicker responses, and while this is beneficial, it is time-consuming too.

That said, there are definite pathways for post-op care and that is where a quick response to inform them that they need to send all information to the consultant as soon as possible is also beneficial.

I advise my consultants to not get involved with responding to social media questions, as this then blurs lines and causes confusion. 

Obviously, there is a medico- legal pathway to follow to ensure that all due care is given and this should only happen away from Facebook and the rest.

Equally, if someone makes a complaint via any social media avenue, it is an opportunity to discuss why. 

Most issues that I have come across are often a lack of communication and can be remedied with tact and care, thus changing what can be a negative review into a positive one and assisting with the reputation of the clinician.

Social customer service is not going away. If 80% of people on social media use it for health-related information, then why not be at the forefront and guide the conversation and care to help those people who would benefit from your help?

Social stories

I have witnessed the lines blurring between privacy and the desire to inform others about an experience. This is a very powerful need that many people have and they create the most powerful social stories that could help your private practice. 

The impact of surgery can be so profound that they want to thank you, as the surgeon or physician, for your help – and the best stories come some time after the event. By maintaining the channel of communication via social media, the stories or testimonials come.

People then read these stories and want to share their experience. This is the emotional relationship that you have with your patients. These are what help propel your private practice.

Of all the methods that are available to encourage feedback, social stories are the most powerful. Around 24% of people want to post online about their health experiences or provide updates, 27% enjoy commenting about health experiences. 

63% of patients choose one provider over another based on a strong online presence. In my experience, I would define that as pro-active engagement, assisting with questions, providing information and social stories. 

In my 2015 article, I said: ‘Your words are your currency and tell the world who you are. They also build relationships and are a form of customer service enabling them to consider coming to you. 

‘Your focus should be on accurately informing people about the health-related issues in your field so as to outshine misleading information.’ I still stand by this today.


Much has been said in the public domain about the role of social media and how it can adversely affect individuals. It’s not going away. 

As it becomes more sophisticated and more demanding, there is a need to be transparent and a need to monitor what you can control to ensure that those who need you find out accurate information to assist them.

Meanwhile, the return on investment on social activity is always difficult to assess in healthcare, but I do know one thing for certain: it needs monitoring and steering towards your aim. It is akin to a massive shipping tanker trying to turn in the Solent: slowly and carefully with assistance to ensure the correct course is kept.

On the positive side, though, your efforts will be rewarded with potential patients becoming more informed than they ever would have been previously. Social media activity changes the relationship between you and your patients. 

It ultimately impacts how your potential patients view you and they, in turn, accumulate information from various sources, ultimately deciding to come to you, as your voice is the one they refer to and the one that they turn to. You become the one they emotionally relate to.

Catherine Harriss (right) is the founder of MultiWorks Marketing. See