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Social Media | Sept 2022

How to Reach More Patients Through Instagram

Post accurate, relevant, and engaging content that patients are compelled to consume.

Social media has more than 4.2 billion active global users,1 and our patients turn to it now more than ever to seek out health and medical information. From Facebook to Twitter to TikTok to Instagram, the popularity of social media platforms rivals that of internet searches for health information. Social media offers an effective way to build the doctor-patient relationship, even before patients walk through the practice’s doors.

The internet is the most frequently used source of health information, with up to 74% of American adults trusting it as their primary source.2,3 The visual nature of ophthalmology, however, creates a unique opportunity for image-based public platforms such as Instagram to be used to answer their health questions. Instagram is used by about 40% of the adult population.4

My colleagues and I recently conducted a study to characterize the top-performing ophthalmology-related posts on Instagram and identify opportunities to reach more patients and encourage greater engagement.5 This article summarizes our results.


A wide variety of ophthalmic information, ranging from educational content and case presentations to self-promotion and personal experiences, is posted on Instagram. Sources of information range from professional organizations and ophthalmology practices to individual practitioners and patients.

Our study included Instagram posts that featured layman’s terms for ophthalmology-related conditions or at least one of 36 ophthalmology-related hashtags representing the most common conditions and procedures as identified by the AAO Intelligent Research in Sight Registry (Table). Between September 2000 and March 2021, more than 5.7 million Instagram posts were identified. The top nine posts for each hashtag (N = 972), as determined by Instagram’s engagement level–based algorithm, were included in the study. The algorithm ranks posts based on the number of likes and comments they receive during a specific time period.

All 972 posts were analyzed for the background (ie, organization, ophthalmologist, optometrist, or patient) and credentials (ie, trainee, board-certified, non–board-certified, or international) of the poster and the format (ie, photograph, graphic, or video), content (ie, educational, self-promotional, or personal experience), caption length (short, 1–8 lines; medium, 9–19 lines; and long, ≥ 20 lines), and engagement level ratio (ELR).

Examples of educational content included question-and-answer polls, slit-lamp photographs, fundus images, and videos of specific ophthalmic procedures. Posts that referenced the poster’s practice and/or advertised the procedures available at their practices were considered self-promotional. Lastly, posts that included subjective or historical narratives specific to the individual were considered to be personal experience. Examples included practitioners sharing their experiences and challenges with treating a specific ophthalmic condition and patients sharing their perspectives on living with an ophthalmic condition.


Number and format of posts. Ophthalmologists shared the highest percentage (35.8%) of posts, followed by patients (27.1%), optometrists (20.1%), and organizations (12.7%). Ophthalmologists consisted of US and EU board-certified practitioners, trainees, and international and non–board-certified ophthalmologists (Figure). The most shared item was photographs (82.2%), followed by videos (8.8%) and graphics (8.4%).

Figure. A breakdown of the authors of ophthalmology-related content included in the study.

Subject matter. More than half (56.3%) of the posts were educational in nature. Posts that detailed an individual’s personal experience were the second greatest form of content and constituted 34% of posts. Self-promotional posts represented 9.3% of the content.

Engagement level. Ophthalmologists-in-training had the highest average ELR (0.096). Interestingly, patients had the second highest average ELR (0.084), followed by optometrists (0.070), all ophthalmologists (0.067), and organizations (0.051). When content was analyzed for ELR, the most popular posts were self-promotional (0.118) and personal experiences (0.091). The posts with the lowest ELR were educational (0.059). Videos were the most favored format and had an ELR of 0.110, followed by photographs and graphics (0.073 and 0.063, respectively).

Top performers. Posts that exhibited personal experiences, doctors in white coats, trainee authors, and selfies (ie, a close-up photograph of one or more individuals) constituted most of the 200 top performing posts (odds ratios: 3.335, 3.259, 3.172, and 2.185, respectively; P < .01). Posts with shorter captions (odds ratio: 1.551; P < .01) fared better than those with long captions (odds ratio: 0.700; P < .05).


The amount of ophthalmology-related content on Instagram is growing, and patients are using the site as an educational resource. Posting to Instagram therefore represents an avenue for ophthalmologists to engage with current and prospective patients. This can bolster the doctor-patient relationship, empower patients to seek treatment for their conditions, and strengthen clinical decision-making.6

Ophthalmologists can increase viewer engagement by incorporating some of the tactics that we have shown to produce a high ELR. These include posting selfies and pictures of themselves or other practitioners in white coats and sharing personal experiences. Educational posts that include slit-lamp and fundus photos, videos of surgical techniques, and infographics were found in our study to achieve lower ELRs than self-promotional posts and should therefore be used sparingly.

It can help to add a personal touch to educational posts by sharing a personal perspective or experience and to use short captions that resonate with consumers. All shared material should be accurate and relevant to patients’ needs.

1. Statista Research Department. Social media – statistics & facts. Statista. 2021. Accessed July 15, 2022. https://www.statista.com/topics/1164/social-networks

2. Finney Rutten LJ, Blake KD, Greenberg-Worisek AJ, Allen SV, Moser RP, Hesse BW. Online health information seeking among US adults: measuring progress toward a healthy people 2020 objective. Public Health Rep. 2019;134(6):617-625.

3. Lenhart A, Purcell K, Smith A, Zickuhr K. Social media and young adults. Pew Research Center. 2010. Accessed July 15, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2010/02/03/social-media-and-young-adults

4. Auxier B, Anderson M. Social media use in 2021. Pew Research Center. Accessed July 15, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021

5. Huang AS, Abdullah AAN, Chen K, Zhu D. Ophthalmology and social media: an in-depth investigation of ophthalmologic content on Instagram. Clin Ophthalmol. 2022;16:685-694.

6. Smailhodzic E, Hooijsma W, Boonstra A, Langley DJ. Social media use in healthcare: a systematic review of effects on patients and on their relationship with healthcare professionals. BMC Health Serv Res. 2016;16(1):442.

Dagny C. Zhu, MD
  • Cornea, cataract, and refractive surgeon; Medical Director; and Partner, NVISION Eye Centers, Rowland Heights, California
  • dagny.zhu@gmail.com; Instagram @DZEyeMD and Twitter @DZEyeMD
  • Financial disclosure: None