JAMA: Physicians behave badly online

Hospitals need to implement strong ethical rules for physicians' online behavior--and now. That's the upshot of a study published recently in Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study found that out of 48 participating state medical boards, nearly all of them had a story to tell, and they weren't pretty. The most common alleged misbehavior: Asking patients out on dates, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.

Physicians also were accused of using online tools for:

  • Inappropriate online communication with patients (69 percent), such as sexual misconduct
  • Inappropriate medical practice (69 percent), such as prescribing medication without establishing a clinical relationship with the patient
  • Misrepresenting medical credentials online (60 percent)

In response, about 71 percent of the state medical boards held disciplinary hearings on the charges. Ultimately, 56 percent disciplined physicians with reprimands, community service, license suspensions, and other penalties, according to CMIO.

"We've just found a new way to violate our own standards," Jason Jent, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida, told Medscape Medical News. "Some of the violations we've seen in face-to-face communication, or over the phone, or by mail have now extended to online behavior. This is something we have to pay attention to."

As Jent pointed out, most of the offensive behaviors are simply online extensions of the same behaviors docs have been called out for in the offline world. And online complaints make up only a small fraction of the thousands of charges brought against physicians each year, according to Medscape Medical News.

But the study's findings certainly highlight the need--as technology, social media and healthcare become more entangled--for stronger standards of conduct, and more physician training about appropriate online communication, MMN reported.

"More guidelines need to be developed, more education needs to take place," Vineet Arora, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, and a blogger and Twitter user herself, told MMN. "People who are more casual users are more likely to make mistakes."

To learn more:
- read the JAMA study's abstract
- check out the Medscape Medical News report
- dig into the Sacramento Bee's summary
- get more detail from CMIO

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