4 reasons docs can't separate the personal from the professional online

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examines the ethical issues surrounding physicians and social media--and the industry guideline that docs separate their personal and professional online presence is problematic, the authors conclude.

The authors, three ethics and psychiatry experts from Johns Hopkins University, say social media guidelines should instead focus on what is appropriate for physicians to share in public, iHealthBeat points out.

Study authors cite four problems with the guidelines, released in April by the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical boards:

  1. They are operationally impossible, since "no current technology" can prevent the public from using the Internet to "connect [physicians'] professional and personal content."
  2. They lack user consensus and have been unable to garner "physician endorsement and adoption."
  3. They are inconsistent with the concept of professional identity.
  4. They are potentially harmful because physicians would have to manage the "psychological or physical burden of trying to maintain [two] identities." Further, they argue, patients might by mistrustful if they "sense that their physician is intentionally hiding something."

The authors say docs should build on their experience in navigating public forums, an approach that would fit into med school's current curriculum and not require physicians to completely separate their professional and personal identities.

April's guidelines called for consistent standards for professional interactions between patient and physician, whether in-person or online. It advised against "Googling" patients to find, for example, whether they've really quit smoking or lost weight.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of medical school and residency program directors admit they search social media sites to evaluate candidates--another reason to maintain a professional image online.

To learn more:
- see the study
- read the iHealthBeat article

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