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The Dos and Don’ts of Physician Social Media Usage


What you do online matters - and medical boards are paying attention.

In some ways, life as a physician is like life as a politician. Your patients (as with a politician’s constituents) hope you will work with their best interests at heart, trust you to make smart decisions, and hold you to the highest standards. 

Also like politicians and their constituents, those high standards your patients have for you extend beyond your work in the exam room and into your life outside the office. For instance, most expect you to have a healthy appearance, to be responsible, caring, and professional.

They also expect you - and rely on you - to behave online.

If what you share and post on social networks reflects poorly on your character, your patients will lose trust in you; if what you share reveals a patient’s private information, both of you will suffer; and if what you share provides a patient with unwise medical advice, that patient’s health could decline.

Clearly what you do online matters - and medical boards are paying attention.

Ninety-two percent of all medical and osteopathic boards in the United States have received complaints of online physician misconduct, according to a recent survey appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The most common violations were inappropriate patient communication, use of the Internet for inappropriate practices such as e-prescribing without an established clinical relationship, and online misrepresentation of credentials.

The survey also found that 56 percent of medical boards have restricted, suspended, or revoked at least one physicians’ license for online missteps.

To help physicians successfully navigate social media usage - which can have great benefits for physicians if used correctly - the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recently released social networking guidelines and recommendations.

It noted several online missteps that physicians can be disciplined for by medical boards:

• Inappropriate communication with patients
• Misrepresentation of credentials
• Violations of patient confidentiality
• Failure to reveal conflicts of interest
• Derogatory remarks regarding a patient
• Depiction of intoxication
• Discriminatory language or practices

The FSMB also recommends never interacting with current or past patients on social networking sites, like Facebook, in a personal manner.

“Physicians should only have online interaction with patients when discussing the patient’s medical treatment within the physician-patient relationship, and these interactions should never occur on personal social networking or social media websites,” the FSMB report states.

If a patient does attempt to “friend you” via Facebook, it might be the smartest policy to simply ignore the request. If the patient asks why you rejected their request - and most will not bring it up - state that it’s your policy not to engage with any patients online.

Still, don’t shy away from social media - just approach it the right way. A good rule of thumb provided by the FSMB is to follow the same principles of professionalism online as you would offline.

Physician-centric professional social networking sites provide you with a great opportunity to discuss thoughts, issues, and interact with your colleagues. Just make sure the network is closed to nonphysicians, advises the FSMB.

Finally, trust your instincts when social networking. Whenever you are doing something on a social network that makes you pause and wonder is this appropriate? It’s probably not.

Do you think it’s ever appropriate to interact with patients on social networks? Why or why not?

See also:
Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Practice Staff7 Ways to Integrate Social Media into Your PracticeHow Practices Can Become More Social-Media SavvySocial Media Opportunities Abound for Physicians



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