State med boards group issues social media rules for docs

Healthcare providers with an interest in using social media must be cognizant of patient privacy and personal boundaries, according to new guidelines from the Federation of State Medical Boards. The guidelines, developed by the FSMB's Special Committee on Ethics and Professionalism, point out that despite the potential of social media for patient care, that potential must be reached within the "proper framework of professional ethics."

For instance, several narratives highlighted within the guidelines highlight what physicians should not do when posting content online or interacting with patients or former patients through sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In one example, a doctor--frustrated with a patient who visited the emergency department on multiple occasions--called the patient "lazy" and "ignorant" in a blog post. In another, patient noted that her doctor frequently posts drunken Facebook pictures, leading her to question his commitment to the profession.

"Even seemingly innocuous online interactions with patients and former patients may violate the boundaries of a proper physician-patient relationship," the guidelines say. Additionally, interaction with patients or former patients online beyond discussion of a patient's medical treatment in a HIPAA compliant manner is discouraged.

Ryan Greysen, M.D., co-author of a recently published research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association focusing on the online behavior of doctors, told Slate, however, that following such directions is often easier said than done.

"Like everyone else, doctors sometimes stumble in their online behaviors and make mistakes in judgment about content they post," he said. "They think they're doing nothing wrong, but unfortunately, the disciplinary responses can be a big deal."

FSMB is not the first entity to offer its two cents on guiding social media use by providers. Earlier this year, the ECRI Institute published a report outlining ways to mitigate social media risk in healthcare.  And last fall, legal resource Avvo published a report on social media tactics for physicians.

To learn more:
- here's the FSMB guidelines (.pdf)
- read this Slate article