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Should physicians keep their professional and personal online identities separate?

smartphone_SoMA position paper published earlier this year by the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Board offered advice to physicians on how to engage in social media with patients, including a recommendation that doctors keep their professional and personal personas separate.

But a commentary published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls into question this guideline stating that it is "operationally impossible, lacking in agreement among active physician social media users, inconsistent with the concept of professional identity, and potentially harmful to physicians and patients."

In their conclusion, the authors explain why a policy directing physicians to, above all, determine if content is appropriate for a public space is a better approach than suggesting they maintain different professional and personal online identities:

Resolving the online identity crisis requires recognizing that social media exist in primarily public or potentially public spaces, not exclusively professional or exclusively personal ones. Boundaries exist; they simply are not drawn around professional and personal identities, nor can they be. When a physician asks, “Should I post this on social media?” the answer does not depend on whether the content is professional or personal but instead depends on whether it is appropriate for a physician in a public space.

This approach has several advantages. First, it does not ask physicians to do the impossible, nor does it rely on an incorrect concept of professional identity. Second, it is likely to be more accepted by active physician social media users, in part by building on the vast experience physicians already have in navigating public spaces, rather than asking them to do something new or unfamiliar.

Third, this approach fits well within existing general professionalism curricula at medical schools, which encourage students to be mindful of professional identity in public and private spaces, not to fully separate their identities.

The full commentary is worth a read for medical professionals that are currently, or considering, using social media tools.

Previously: How a “culture of permission” prevents doctors from being active in social media, A reminder to young physicians that when it comes to social media, “it’s no longer about you”, Advice for physicians when interacting with patients online and How, exactly, can Twitter benefit physicians?
Photo by EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine

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