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Social Media Focus: The importance of having patient advocates in plastic surgery

Patient advocates are an increasingly crucial part of spreading evidence-based information – a development that's helping to effect positive change throughout the field of plastic surgery, and social media channels provide an avenue for the information to reach countless patients quickly. This information can help patients and their support teams navigate healthcare systems and treatment options.

Research on patient advocacy previously focused on the attempts of patient groups to mobilize resources and positively influence research, pharmaceutical companies and policymakers. Although the primary missions of these individuals and groups might differ, all advocates see education as the first step toward self-help and empowerment.

What is a patient advocate?

A patient advocate is an individual who dedicates time and resources providing information and supporting other patients in an area of specialized healthcare. Advocates focus on educating and supporting others and empowering change in the medical community by sharing their stories and personal experiences.

In plastic surgery, patient advocates can come from a wide range of backgrounds, including breast cancer patients, burn victims or cosmetic surgery patients. Regardless of their medical background, the key is combining a personal story with widely available, evidence-based information to help other patients make fully informed decisions as they relate to their treatment.

More than likely, you interact regularly with patient advocates within your practice. Taking the time to interact with your patients beyond the routine clinical conversations is important in identifying strong candidates. Advocates will typically express an interest in learning and a passion for helping and supporting others as a means of "giving back."

It's important to encourage and support these efforts. For one, they can combat "fake news" within the scope of plastic surgery, but they can also provide invaluable brand-ambassadors for your practice.

Give them a platform

An easy way to empower advocates is by providing a social media platform for them to connect with potential new patients. Allowing advocates to share their experiences with surgery, recovery and results gives potential patients an honest, trustworthy source to rely on when determining if a plastic surgery procedure is best for them. Although this kind of connection can be made by organizing a local or online support group, social media provides an excellent resource that advocates can deploy to plug into specific, relatable communities.

Facebook is a great example, whereby users can connect within categorized group communities to freely discuss and share information on any related topic – including plastic surgery and various procedures. Having advocates in these groups is a huge asset for physicians. These groups are often closed to the general Facebook population and only patients who meet specific criteria are allowed to join. Knowing you have educated advocates active in these closed group discussions is another great way to combat false medical news and information.

Providing patients with the educational materials they need to promote evidence-based information is also crucial in empowering advocates. These patients can be a first-line resource in combating misleading advertising campaigns and false plastic surgery claims, and in helping establish realistic expectations.

Listening to advocates also provides plastic surgeons with valuable perspectives on how we can improve ourselves to better serve the needs of our patients. Failing to take heed of such feedback can be a valuable opportunity missed to improve the care we provide our patients.

Although the value of patient advocates may not yet be well understood or appreciated within the specialty, it's important that we encourage and empower all advocates in their support of potential patients, and to arm them with the evidence-based information they need to do this effectively and responsibly.