The Next Big Thing in Social Media: Vertical Networks

Cousins to Facebook and LinkedIn, experts say these niche social sites are exploding

By Aliah D. Wright May 1, 2015
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I​​​t’s called Doximity, and it claims that half of the 800,000 doctors in the United States use it.

“Aside from the iPhone, there’s never been a piece of technology adopted by physicians as quickly as” the Doximity social networking site, the company boasts on its website.

Not only are doctors sharing their knowledge and expertise, however, they’re also sharing patient records—something HR professionals should be aware of as vertical networks become more common.

Why? Because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) includes laws governing how employers must protect employees’ medical privacy rights as well as the electronic disclosure of their medical data.

Doctors aren’t the only professionals with their own niche or vertical networks, which at first glance may seem redundant with the broad adoption of Facebook (more than a billion users worldwide) and LinkedIn (more than 347 million worldwide). However, experts and the operators of these networks say having a secure environment specifically for those with a shared professional background is most beneficial for those who want to discuss specific concerns and avoid cat videos, links to outrageous stories and status updates.

“The best vertical networks are enjoying spectacular growth,” said Dave Sumner Smith, CEO at Next Dimension Media, the world’s largest independent operator of LinkedIn groups, including Linked:HR.

In an interview with SHRM Online, Sumner Smith, an expert on vertical networks, said, “There’s something very simple about why they’re succeeding, and it’s because they’re making people’s work easier.”

Easier in terms of collaborating, gathering information, and communicating more seamlessly with trusted and, in some cases, verified individuals.

Trusting Your Peers

According to Nielsen’s 2013 Under the Influence: Consumer Trust in Advertising report, people trust those who are like them more than they trust branded content and messaging. Nielsen reported that 68 percent of survey respondents indicated that they trust consumer opinions. Furthermore, people trust social media more than they do advertising, experts say.

Many vertical network operators told SHRM Online in a series of interviews for this article that their members want to network in more-secure environments with verified professionals, as on Doximity.

Experts point to other vertical social networks that have grown in popularity, including Spiceworks for IT professionals; RallyPoint for service members and veterans; and Edmodo for educators, students, and parents. There are dozens more.

Narrowing the Focus

But is there value in a separate network for professionals that goes beyond, say, a LinkedIn group that may have the same purpose?

Niche networks have “a huge value,” said Erik Qualman, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube (Equalman Studios, 2013) and the best-selling book Socialnomics (Wiley, 2012). “Often we see verticals [succeed] because they can focus and cater to [a specific] audience. We trust recommendations from people we know more than people we don’t know.”

But it’s not all good news for niche networks. Qualman recalls a defunct social media site named Milhook, which, for a time, was “wildly popular for those in the military. But it didn’t work, and it lost out. So the military reverted back to Facebook,” says Qualman, whose social media videos highlight the evolution of social engagement. For vertical networks to be successful, he adds, they cannot just “re-create the wheel.”

Operators of vertical networks tell SHRM Online the key to making those networks better is to verify users before allowing them to interact.

“We’ve known the practice of medicine has always” had a social component, said Nate Gross, M.D., Doximity’s co-founder and head of business development.

“Physicians have always [been social] offline. [Then] it became apparent that the rest of the world was getting all these great modern technologies, but [other social sites] weren’t secure enough or vertical enough to be used by the medical profession,” he added.

Gross said San Francisco-based Doximity (a variation of the word “proximity”) has about 100 staff people, including six physicians and a medical advisory board. It requires its members to prove that they are medical professionals by going through a three-step verification process that includes providing their medical license.

“We contract with the same services that do bank-grade security,” Gross said. “In order to get doctors to use us, to trust us, we have to make sure everything is encrypted and secure and designed for a medical use case.” He noted that the co-founder of Doximity, CEO Jeff Tangney also founded Epocrates, a popular software application used by physicians.

Gross said the site is much more than just a place where physicians and other health care professionals connect with classmates and colleagues; read medical journals; and discuss medical trends, cases and other health-related issues. “We wanted doctors … to be more productive in the care of their patients.”

He explained that on Doximity, verified doctors can share encrypted patient medical records via electronic fax—even from a smartphone.

But is this sharing compliant with federal HIPAA regulations? The act, among other things, protects the confidentiality and security of health care information. Gross said that the sharing is compliant, adding that more than a third of doctors on the site share information via the site’s HIPAA-compliant secure messaging service.

Of course, on a public network such as Facebook or Twitter, “the best rule of thumb would be to not share any information without an explicit authorization from an individual,” said Matthew R. Fisher, a health care attorney focusing on regulatory compliance, HIPAA, privacy, security, fraud and abuse.“If information is going into a public forum, then that is clearly an issue limited by HIPAA. However, if information will be shared in a closed network such as Doximity, where only medical professionals have access, then the question changes,” said Fisher, who is chairman of the Mirick O’Connell Health Law Group in Worcester, Mass.

“In a closed network, the question shifts to who can access that network. If only other medical providers can have access, then information could be shared since the communication could be viewed as equivalent to the old hallway consult.”

He added that providers should share “only a very limited amount of information. As much as possible, sharing clearly identifiable information should be avoided if trying to source opinions from a broad audience.”

What HR Should Know

“If the platform can demonstrate that the information shared on its site is protected in accordance with HIPAA standards as a baseline, then the information can be shared,” Fisher said. HIPAA compliance “can mean demonstrating that information will be properly secured and that privacy will be maintained. Realistically, it is difficult to prevent anyone from sharing information online. The key is trying to guide providers to use sites that will protect information and not potentially expose information contrary to HIPAA requirements.”

It may not be necessary for HR administrators to know which providers are using a specific site, Fisher added, but it would be a good idea for an HR administrator and hospitals generally to implement policies covering professional use of social networking sites.

“By setting clear guidelines for usage, HR administrators then have a tool to hold providers accountable when inappropriate actions are taken or information is shared in a noncompliant manner,” he said.

It’s one of the main reasons why, Gross explained, doctors using the Doximity site are thoroughly vetted first.

And Doximity isn’t the only network whose users are verified before joining.

RallyPoint, the vertical network for current and former military service members, was founded in 2012 at Harvard Business School by two veterans. Its goal is to give members tools to succeed while in the military and beyond. Much like Doximity, members must prove their affiliation.

“One of the greatest value propositions is that we require verification,” said site co-founder Yinon Weiss, who served on active duty as a Marine Corps scout/sniper platoon commander and then as an Army special forces officer. Weiss also holds an MBA from Harvard. Members must be verified through the military’s own database, by providing Social Security number and date of birth; by submitting documents for verification, such as discharge paperwork; or by social verification (recommendations by other people).

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM and author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites(SHRM, 2013). Follow her on Twitter @1SHRMScribe.

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