The ever-increasing popularity of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and others, can create issues for doctors and other health care providers. A few weeks ago, I posted about the Rhode Island physician who lost her job and was reprimanded by the Medical Board for inadvertently identifying a patient on Facebook. Other than the HIPAA and physician-patient privilege issues, social media can present other issues for doctors. For example, last year, CNN.com ran a story about physicians on a humanitarian mission to Haiti posting photos on Facebook. The article, which can be read here, indicates that the Puerto Rican Medical Board investigated the posting of photos of doctors drinking, posing with guns and partying. Ultimately, Medical Board exonerated the physicians, but the incident itself highlights the risks of social media for doctors.
A major concern for health care providers with an online presence is maintaining professional and personal boundaries. The AMA has issued a policy on professionalism in the use of social media for physicians that should be required reading for all healthcare professionals. The AMA Policy can be viewed here.
Doctors and other healthcare providers who choose to have a social media presence should keep a couple of things in mind:
- Nothing about the Internet is Private. The physician-patient privilege and HIPAA prohibit disclosure of any information that would identify a patient. The more unique a case is, the more likely a description would identify the patient. Don’t discuss patients or cases, no matter how interesting. Here’s what can happen.
- Boundaries become Blurred Online. As with the physicians in Haiti discussed above, the lines between private and professional life can be difficult to discern. An April 2007 article in the AMA Journal Of Ethics, cautions against physician’s disclosure of personal issues to patients, such as similar medical conditions, in an attempt to empathize with the patient. Allowing patients “behind the curtain” into a physician’s personal life is a situation ripe for problems. Although patients may feel a greater connection to the physician, they can also start to view the relationship as something more. Most commenters recommend avoiding “friending” patients on Facebook. See”A Doctor’s Request: Please Don’t Friend Me” from USA Today; and “Practicing Medicine in the Age of Facebook” from the New England Journal of Medicine. Because of the unique nature of the physician-patient relationship, keep your personal and professional life separate.
- The Same Rules Apply Online as Off. If physicians or practices choose to have Facebook or other social media presence, keep in mind that all of the rules that apply in the real world apply online. This means that poor advice, poor decisions, and poor communication online can have the same affect as that given in person.