Social media use by docs not a black-and-white issue

The debate rages on about whether doctors should 'friend' their patients in a recent Seattle Times article.

Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at The Everett (Wash.) Clinic who tweets and blogs as Seattle Mama Doc, believes it's imperative for physicians to be online.

"If celebrities are going to be online, then we educated, practicing physicians had better be there, too," she says, according to the Times, to provide credible health information and to counter the sales pitches and endorsements from celebrities and others.

Social media, according to Swanson, allows her to know what patients are talking about, who is influencing them, and how to provide scientific information. She can point out an unsafe crib setup in a news photo or weigh in on a breast-feeding controversy.

On the other hand, John Lantos, director of the Children's Mercy Bioethics Center at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., considers being Facebook friends with patients, "a really icky idea," according to the Times. The article points out that one drawback of Facebook, which supports Lantos' stance, is knowing too much about patients--a prime downside for any relationship on the social network.

And then there's the possibility of inappropriate use of the medium by physicians or physician assistants. The Medical Quality Assurance Commission of Washington state has received  several such complaints lately, according to the Times, including inappropriate requests to "friend" a patient on Facebook, and the alleged posting of insulting, derogatory or demeaning comments about former patients.

According to a new set of guidelines from the Federation of State Medical Boards released in May, physicians who use social media should maintain strict boundaries between their personal and professional interactions online.

Though medical professionals increasingly use YouTube, blogs, Google-plus, Twitter and Facebook to develop a personal brand highlighting their expertise, the Times article points out that some medical residents are encouraged to delete their social-media accounts completely before applying for positions.

As FierceHealthcare's Karen Cheung wrote in May, it's important for health organizations to have a social-media policy clearly spelled out--and to revisit it periodically to ensure it's up to date.

To learn more:
- read the Times article