Personal Branding for Radiologists: Is It Necessary to Get Ahead?

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In this new age of social media and physician scrutiny, the message is coming through loud and cloud to a growing number of radiologists: define your brand before it defines you.

“Nowadays people seek out online all the information they possibly can on a physician before their first clinical appointment,” says Matthew Hawkins, MD, assistant professor in the department of radiology and imaging sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and a faculty member of the Radiology Leadership Institute (RLI). A strong social media presence, he stresses, can provide a powerful leg up—particularly on third-party physician rating web sites—by giving someone greater control over his or her own brand.

Personal branding, however, is anything but a given in a profession widely known for its reclusiveness and reserve. Indeed, there exists a large school within radiology that equates branding with the less savory aspects of Madison Avenue-like hype and finds the notion of self-promotion odious and unfit for a field that prides itself on professionalism. “While there are cases of people who brand to establish themselves as quality leaders, there are unfortunately many, many others who use branding to promote products that are inferior and, in some cases, useless or even harmful,” says Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, professor of radiology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “Instead, our mission should be to educate patients and communities about what we do as radiologists and the important difference we can make in their health.”

Still, a growing band of media-savvy professionals views branding as essential a tool as technology to compete in a landscape being redrawn by value-based care. “Branding is really about aligning yourself with principles which can have a very positive effect because they hold you to a higher standard,” says Vivek Kalia, MD, MPH, assistant professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor and lead author of a recent report on personal branding in Journal of the American College of Radiology (J Am Coll Radiol. 2017 Jul;14(7):971-975). “Personal branding can actually enhance your clinical work and bring you more cases and more interesting research projects. In fact, these can grow exponentially depending on how well you handle branding initiatives.”

The opportunities for personal branding have never been greater given the profusion of social media platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube enable radiologists to grow their visibility around ideas and themes that resonate with them. For example, Nisha Mehta, MD, a radiologist with the VA Health Care Center in Charlotte, N.C., reaches up to 20,000 followers on Facebook through her blog posts focused on issues germane to women in medicine, including work-life balance, job flexibility and changing the medical culture to address burnout. Mehta, the mother of two boys ages six and three, employs her writing and speaking projects to reach a niche audience of physician women and physician moms with her pointed message.

Kalia, who is just starting his career as an attending in the division of musculoskeletal radiology at University of Michigan Health System, is relatively new to Twitter. But he learned fast how to adopt it to disseminate educational material and industry updates to his current 430 followers. “It offers an incredible return on investment because more and more people are connecting with me, and I find they recognize my name more at conferences I attend,” he says. “It expands your network enormously.”

Blog posts and columns that allow radiologists with authority or credentials in certain fields to broadcast their opinions can provide a big boost to brand-building, adds Hawkins. “Some radiologists, for example, have taken a strong stand on radiation exposure and the risk to patients,“ he says. “So their brand is to emphasize as a group or practice that they’re going to minimize radiation exposure as much as possible.”

Branding Has Many Forms

Personal branding is by no means confined to electronic media. Radiologists are honing their images and building their professional networks through speaking engagements at professional conferences, or by simply attending these regional and national events. Anthony Anderson, a radiologic technologist who spent 15 years working the sidelines for the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League (NFL), has perfected this art form. He has parlayed that experience into the packed lectures he gives eight to 10 times a year at conferences around the country, describing the work he does on behalf of players on game day as well as his involvement in research on concussion protocols and equipment safety for the NFL. Does he look upon these speaking engagements as a form of personal branding? “Absolutely,” says Anderson, who also works as a medical accounts manager and has authored numerous papers and articles on sports imaging, trauma and surgical radiology. “It’s not only fun for me and a chance to give back, but it’s an opportunity to be recognized across my profession as an expert in this field.”

It’s not necessary for radiologists to be in the public eye to engage in effective branding, however. Proponents maintain that imaging professionals are branding even when they’re not aware of it through the quality of their work, the confidence they inspire in others, the messages they convey and the way they interact with both patients and referring physicians. “It’s a kind of subconscious personal branding,” Kalia says. “And you don’t have to be a social media guru to be good at it. If you provide valuable and timely information whenever a consulting physician walks into the reading room with a question, then that’s personal branding. You become known as the go-to radiologist if someone has a concern, and that can be very effective.”

For all its advantages, personal branding is a tough sell in a profession whose practitioners make a living in a quiet reading room and are normally uncomfortable with the notions of marketing and self-promotion. “It’s one thing to build a good reputation by doing good work and proving yourself trustworthy to colleagues and patients,” says Gunderman. “But it’s quite another to say, ‘I wish I were making more money and had a bigger market share.’ That can lead to marketing campaigns that ultimately don’t serve the best interests of the patient or community.” Nor does personal branding win many converts among radiologists who view the practice through a financial prism. As Mehta notes, “The long-term benefits of building a brand aren’t always obvious to those who see RVUs as the bottom line. A phone call with a referring physician can go a long way in establishing a reputation, but if you spend a half-hour on the phone, that’s also five MRIs that you could have read—and that’s a lot of money.” 

Ripple Effects

What radiologists fail to consider, insist branding advocates, is the spill-over effect image-building can have on the whole organization or private practice for which they work. At last year’s American College of Radiology Radiology Leadership Summit, Amy Kotsenas, MD, with Mayo Clinic, described how branding and social media can provide an expansive forum to discuss one’s research. “It helps to promote not just myself but the work that the whole institution is doing in that regard,” she pointed out at the conference, citing her work in epilepsy imaging and, particularly, autoimmune epilepsy. “Social media can go a long way toward educating the general public as well as referring physicians about what radiologists do.”

Kalia echoes that thought, emphasizing how branding-fueled outreach can have a “multitude of positive downstream ripple effects” that one must consider. “A brilliant professor who never makes his findings known to the outside world and who never writes or publishes will never have the same effect as someone who uses the internet to spread his or her message globally,” he says.

Some go a step further, arguing that personal branding will be tantamount to surviving in an industry where competition, particularly among outpatient imaging centers, is intensifying. Suggestions have even been floated to make branding a standard part of medical school or residency curricula so that the next generation of radiologists has the tools they need to develop and curate their own distinct and competitive brands.

“There is so much going on in medicine these days that telling radiologists they need to focus on marketing and branding is just another task on their plates,” says Mehta. “But we have to be very aware of the fact that if we don’t pursue branding opportunities, somebody else will—and I think we’d rather be the ones setting the landscape. Physicians need to make this a priority.”