Doctors Need to Stay in Line When Going Online

By Tiffani Sherman
July 25, 2017

Physicians can make great use of social media, but following professional standards is paramount.   

By definition, social media is meant to be social. However, physicians must keep things professional online, and that requires extra thought.

“They may now be seen as representing something larger than themselves” representing all of health care, not just personal interests, says Terry Kind, MD, MPH, assistant dean for clinical education and associate professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

That thought process can start any time during a career. At GWU, it begins with first-year medical students, who take a course on social media and professionalism that Kind helped design.

“These students are now entering the health care profession, and they have a new identity; they’re a medical student,” she says. “We wanted them to take a pause; it was an opportunity for them to think about the challenging issues.”

These include keeping things professional, deciding whether to be connected with patients and what to disseminate on social media, Kind says.

One issue precedes all others. “We wouldn’t conduct patient care in the social media space,” she says. “Patient privacy comes first,” even if a patient asks for something online.

It isn’t always obvious when a patient tries to connect online, she says. So if you don’t know someone, ask whether they are a patient before accepting a friend request. Connecting with patients online could also change the dynamic of the relationship.

“They’re peering into each other’s lives like they haven’t before,” Kind says. “It’s like being in a grocery store, amplified.” These meetings in a nonmedical setting often are awkward, she says, so having them constantly online requires some care.

“We’re drawing upon the same principles as we have in history but are considering them in the new social space,” she says. “We have tenants of professionalism in our field, and we need to apply them in the new social setting.”

That setting isn’t all bad. It can be beneficial for communicating factual medical information. Physicians often can dispel rumors and calm fears, Kind says, pointing to posts about the need for childhood vaccinations or healthy lifestyles, for example.

When a patient seeks specific advice on social media, the physician should respond and acknowledge the message but insist the person call the office or use secure contact methods, Kind says.

“There are ways physicians could route patients into their practice sites,” she says.

Kind stresses the importance of knowing social media rules for each office. Some practices and professional associations recommend separating personal from professional profiles. “Know your workplace guidelines, know the professional society guidelines and have your own principles,” Kind says.

Privacy settings and understanding the various platforms also is key when deciding what to post and when. “Think about your own digital identity and why you’re on social media to begin with,” Kind says.

Facebook has extensive privacy settings, Twitter is more open and public and LinkedIn is mainly for making professional connections, which could be helpful for physician leaders who want to reach out to younger colleagues and vice versa.

“It’s making it easier to connect; they can break down some of the hierarchy of connections, they can reach out more easily,” Kind says.

That ease is what makes social media popular, and it’s something the youngest generation of physicians has grown up with. It’s a reason Kind and her colleagues felt the need to remind new medical students of the responsibility.

“They now have a new identity being a medical student en route to being a physician,” Kind says. “Our intentions weren’t to squelch their participation but make them think about their new role as it relates to the very public setting about social media.”

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance health care writer based in Florida.

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