Ask your doctor - but not via social media
Physicians and other healthcare providers need to be especially careful when using social media
Image credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias
The use - or potential misuse - of social media by workers is becoming a bigger and bigger issue across all kind of jobs and industries. However, there’s one profession where the use of social media is particularly rife with potential for trouble: physicians and medical professionals. A recent survey of state medical boards published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that a majority would investigate physicians for violating online professionalism for things like misrepresenting credentials, posting images of patients without consent and inappropriately contacting patients.
But what are doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to do? Should they avoid social media completely, or is there some way they can continue to use, say Facebook, without crossing any professional lines? Is there any useful role for social media at all for healthcare providers?
I recently spoke with Dr. Alex Blau, a former emergency room physician and currently the Medical Director of Doximity, a professional networking company for physicians that provides a secure environment for doctors to privately discuss medical issues. According to Blau, while there are any number of potential social media pitfalls for doctors (e.g., depicting themselves being intoxicated, being derogatory towards patients) the biggest concern, by far, is the violation of patient privacy.
“We've seen a lot of physicians and other healthcare providers getting themselves into trouble with seemingly innocuous comments on Twitter and Facebook which are then traceable back to an individual patient,” Blau said. In addition to getting the physician in trouble, it’s also a potentially big (and expensive) problem for hospitals. “There's tremendous liability for health care institutions when it comes to violations of patient privacy. There's definitely a push to have their health care labor force off of social media.”
Even just being being friends with patients on social media can be problematic. “That's a no-no,” said Blau. While it’s natural for patients to want to be connected in that way to their caregivers, letting them into the social life of a physician “changes the nature of the care relationship. It fundamentally can do damage to the trust that a patient puts in you as a professional.“
To try and deal with all of this, social media guidelines are being written by state medical boards, hospitals and medical schools. The younger generation of doctors, who are growing up with social media, are being educated early on about some of the issues, and some are choosing to be careful from the start. “A lot of med students and certainly a lot of new residents who are starting their training will actually leave Facebook. They will close down their accounts or they will turn on the strictest of privacy controls. They're learning how to manage all of that in order to basically reduce their profile,” Blau said.
But is it simply too risky for medical professionals to even use social media? Should they avoid it completely? Blau doesn’t think doctors need to completely disconnect. In fact, he believes that some public social networks can serve a useful role. “I've seen Twitter used well for broad discussion of philosophical issues in health care or broad trends in medicine,” he said. But, clearly, any discussion of specific patient issues should take place only in a secure, private environment, such as that which Doximity provides.
As for those physicians and health care workers who choose to use traditional social media platforms, Blau suggests using extreme care. “The general wisdom is don't say anything you wouldn't say in a crowded elevator.”
Are you a physician or healthcare provider that uses social media? Are you a patient that has had contact with your physician via social media? What’s your experience been like? please share in the comments.