Synopsis: It’s official. Back in Nov 2010, the AMA recognized that “Social networking websites and blogs can be an effective and efficient way to communicate”. So, the AMA has created social media guidelines for physicians.
On one hand, the AMA advises doctors to be responsible in their communications and regularly track their online presence. It also advised physicians and medical students to proceed with caution. On the other, hand “71% of state medical boards have investigated doctors for violating professionalism online.” These are the facts!
Physicians who write blogs, use Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media tools must take extra care to manage their online reputation. Any and all online presence – whether as part of practice relationship marketing or on personal accounts – must adhere to certain protocols. Doctors, unlike most public persons, must accept full responsibility for their communications and use appropriate language when communicating online. Additionally, security settings must be kept at the highest levels on all online platforms (particularly access to personal information and to abide by patient privacy laws). Doctors and practices must also take extra precaution to ensure they are not hacked – or have their professional persona hijacked.
Social Media Guidelines for Physicians – Online Communications:
“Using social media can help physicians create a professional presence online, express their personal views and foster relationships, but it can also create new challenges for the patient-physician relationship,” said AMA Board of Trustees Member Mary Anne McCaffree, MD (at a November 2010 AMA meeting).
Google studies found that more than 90% of U.S. physicians use the Internet to gather health and medical information. Most doctors also use the Internet for personal communications beyond the workplace, and physician reviews are becoming more commonplace – so it’s imperative for a doctor to proactively manage their online reputation.
By 2014, an estimated 15% of social media reviews are expected to be fake, according to the technology research firm Gartner Inc. Eighty-five percent of consumers conduct online research before making a purchase, according to a Harris Interactive study. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 61% of Internet users look online for health information.
Competitors may posts fake physician reviews. It happens to other professionals, so doctors will not be immune.
This is why it’s so important to maintain appropriate doctor-patient boundaries and keep professional and personal content separated online. Physicians should be mindful that – even with privacy filters – most online communications will still be searchable, long-lasting and available to millions of people.
Though the Internet might create feelings of anonymity and impenetrability, doctors should not post anything online that they would not be prepared to express in writing (a letter or medical note in a chart, for example) as it could have serious negative professional repercussions. Although the AMA advises self-regulation (and reminds physicians to be cognizant of their obligations to patients and not do anything to jeopardize patient privacy or confidentiality) the temptation to ‘spill the beans’ can still sometimes be overwhelming and result in serious misconduct charges and malpractice suits.
On all social networking websites, physicians should use privacy settings that block their information from public view. They also need to recognize that those settings may not completely or permanently prevent outside access, the policy says.
Physicians are cautioned against having nonclinical communications with patients because doctors may see something about a patient online that could have implications for their medical care. In the report that led to the creation of this policy, CEJA members gave an example where a photo was posted online of a patient smoking – after the patient had told the physician s/he was a nonsmoker. Seeing that photo – and knowing the patient may not have been truthful – could affect how the physician interacts with the patient in subsequent visits.
Although it is part of a physician’s professional obligation to monitor the internet for their own content (as well as content posted about them or colleagues) some doctors have expressed concern about physicians approaching colleagues they believe have posted unprofessional content online.
While it shouldn’t be another doctor’s obligation to police online activities for colleagues, physicians have the public’s trust and must take that responsibility seriously. It is no different from existing standards that physicians report colleagues for unprofessional behavior they witness.
Physicians should recognize that their actions online and the content they post may negatively affect their reputation – both among patients and colleagues – and may have consequences for their medical careers.