Can social media be hazardous to physicians’ (professional) health?

November 13, 2009 at 11:24 am | Posted in Communications strategy, Professional ethics, Regulation, Social media | Leave a comment

Ok, so the headline is intentionally provocative. But while the FDA decides how or whether to weigh in on the use of social media to promote regulated medical products (Reuters and many others covered the two-day event), a run of recent articles and blog postings posit the pluses and minuses of the use of social media by physicians.

This discussion is the latest and a logical extension of the ongoing debate about the benefits and potential risks of any new communications tools used by health and medical professionals. Clinicians, after all, regularly discuss sensitive patient information and are subject to all manner of legal oversight and professional ethics.

We saw a variation of this debate back when the profession mulled whether doctors should advertise, then over the rise of web, physician-patient e-mail, and now blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever the next new thing will be. (By the way, a related discussion on the blog Scholarly Kitchen looks at whether scientists are joining social networks and, to the extent that they haven’t, why that might be the case).

The clinician-focused discussion in a nutshell (Medscape has a nice overview on this) – social media tools can be useful ways for clinicians to seek out professional information and opinion, raise professional visibility and stay in touch with communities of interest. But like any technology, clinicians should be aware of possible risks.

Specific caveats (Medical Law Review hits this most explicitly)  — physicians should be mindful of patient confidentiality and not let the seeming informality of social media lull them into straying over professional boundaries – even on closed or “secure” sites. A couple of posts on the physician blog 33Charts nicely summarize some of the issues around doctor-patient interactions via social media. And you can monitor the Clinical Cases and Images blog for ongoing updates about this issue.

This all seems like common sense, certainly. And in many ways, it hearkens back to debates within professional circles about the early days of online communities, discussion boards and the like.

What may be different now is that both professionals and patients/consumers with access are using digital technology in far greater numbers, with far more sophistication, than a few years ago, and the adoption curve for social media tools is especially steep. We’ve also seen the ongoing rise of the “e-patient,” the term the late Tom Ferguson, MD, coined years ago to describe individuals “equipped, enabled, empowered and engaged” in their  health and health care decisions.  A federally sponsored summit earlier in November discussed this trend and its implications in depth.

My favorite take-away from this discussion? The Medscape review noting that, as far as the potential for clinician missteps on social media platforms is concerned, “physicians behaving badly is not a new concept, but for years, the risqué humor, alcohol-fueled hijinks, and derogatory slang in patient charts — think ‘CLL’ for ‘chronic low-life,’ ‘LOBNH’ for ‘lights on but nobody home’ and ‘grave dodger’ to describe a chronically ill elderly patient — have been hidden from view.”  Digital technology, the piece notes, makes it possible for all the world to see such potential bad behavior.

Will the pluses that social media tools present to transform professional and professional-patient/consumer communications outweigh the minuses, real or perceived? I  hope so. But stay tuned.

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