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Media, Medicine and Society

Advice for physicians when interacting with patients online

A position paper recently released by the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) urges health-care providers to carefully consider their actions when using social media or other forms of electronic communication. From a post today on the news@JAMA blog:

To help physicians use social media and other digital communication tools in ways that are more beneficial and less likely to cause harm, the ACP and FSMB produced the current position paper. The paper emphasizes the importance of following the same ethical standards for maintaining the physician-patient relationship, confidentiality, patient privacy, and respect for individuals online or offline. It also recommended that physicians:

  • Create separate personal and professional accounts for social media and other interactions online.
  • Use e-mail only to communicate with patients with whom they have an established physician-patient relationship and only with proper patient consent.
  • Manage their online reputation by periodically searching for their name and creating a profile page of information that will likely be the first item to come up in such a search.
  • Be aware that online comments can have lasting effects on a career.

Authors of the paper note in their conclusion that digital communication offers both opportunities and challenges for practitioners, trainees and medical students and the conversation about how health-care providers should use social media and online networks to connect with patients is only just beginning.

[These tools] offer innovative ways for physicians to interact with patients and positively affect the health of communities, but the tenets of professionalism and of the patient–physician relationship should govern these interactions. Institutions should have policies in place on the uses of digital media. Education about the ethical and professional use of these tools is critical to maintaining a respectful and safe environment for patients, the public, and physicians. As patients continue to turn to the Web for health care advice, physicians should maintain a professional presence and direct patients to reputable sources of information.

The ACP and the FSMB recognize that emerging technology and societal trends will continue to change the landscape of social media and social networking and how Web sites are used by patients and physicians will evolve over time. These guidelines are meant to be a starting point, and they will need to be modified and adapted as technology advances and best practices emerge.

Previously: How, exactly, can Twitter benefit physicians?, How can physicians manage their online persona? KevinMD offers guidance, 33Charts’ Bryan Vartabedian talks about physician blogging and A guide to the social web for physicians

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