Docs urged to use caution when building social media profiles

Despite a rise in the number of healthcare professionals migrating online to build a following on blogs and on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, dangers persist, as outlined in a recent article published in the British Medical Journal.

One of the main points made by the author, general practitioner Margaret McCartney (who herself blogs and has a Twitter following) is that the casual nature of websites and discussion forums often can lead to lowered inhibitions and, as a result, inappropriate posts. London-based social media law expert Godwin Busuttil told McCartney that he had "several concerns" about social media use by doctors.

"If a doctor is talking to a colleague, it's done in a collegial way, in the spirit of professional inquiry," Busuttil said. "No harm is likely to be done, and there may actually be a benefit to the patient. But doing it online gives rise to all sorts of concerns about patients' privacy." Busuttil added that a doctor, in posting material online,  is acting in an official capacity, even if he or she doesn't realize it.

McCartney also touched on issues such as physicians "friending" patients on Facebook, citing both the British Medical Association and the American Medical Association as discouraging the practice. "The BMA acknowledges that many doctors may choose to share some personal information with patients," she said, "but this can be controlled in the consulting room in a way that is not possible online."

Still, according to McCartney, social media serves a purpose. While the UK's General Medical Council plans to issue guidance on social media (the BMA has already done so), McCartney said that rather than being "overly cautious," it needs to instead serve as a reflection of the "maturing role" of doctors.

To learn more:
- read the BMJ article (subscription required)

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