About two years ago, I started noticing an uptick in posts and discussions on what role digital footprints and online reputation was going to play for physicians. We knew it was just a matter of time before the Internet would become a key component in how our patients found and interacted with us. Yet even so, the shift is happening much faster than many of us anticipated. In my practice, for example, I’d estimate that as many as 17 to 18 percent of my patients are seeking me out and booking appointments based solely on my online presence.

Research stats suggest even more robust numbers: Health information is the third most common search activity for adults of all ages, and 44 percent of all Internet users search online to find information about health professionals, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.

What this means is that even if your patients aren’t googling you, they’re likely to be going home and googling your diagnoses to see if it measures up to other content they’re seeing. In many ways, the Internet is still cowboy country, and there’s a glut of false information about treatments and disease. That isn’t lost on users, and (as in the real world) they tend to trust each other and experiences they perceive as real and direct. Patients want to know who you are and whether they can believe you, and for that they turn to each other – and to you.

This brings us to your role, and it’s actually quite simple. Take your real-world self to the digital table. People want to see and learn about you as much as possible, so put your biography and picture up on your hospital or practice website. Write things. And if you’re pressed for time, make a short, informational video. In fact, I find that patients who’ve seen my videos as opposed to written content have a much different interaction with me when they walk in. They’ve seen me talking at my webcam in a baseball hat on the weekend, so they come in knowing who I am and what to expect from me.

Equally important, enhance your credibility by selecting large, respected third party sites on which to build a deeper presence. This could translate to engaging in social media conversations, submitting your posts to content blogs, or uploading your full profile to a site that offers reviews from patients. Seeing how your past patients or peers interact with you on sites that you don’t own establishes you as reliable and trustworthy – online and in person.

Digital reputation may have risen to the forefront faster than we’d expected, but only because our lives have digitized more quickly than we’d predicted. Approach your online presence with the same care and integrity that you do your real world one, and you may find that it’s not the stakes that are higher, it’s the opportunities that are greater.

Howard Luks, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with offices in Westchester and Duchess Counties. He is an associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at New York Medical College, and serves as chief of Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy at University Orthopedics, PC and Westchester Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter @hjluks.