The Federation of State Medical Boards teamed up with the American College of Physicians (ACP) to publish a policy statement about appropriate “professional conduct of physicians in the digital environment”.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 8 in 10 internet users use the internet for health information. Some physicians see that statistic as a great opportunity to engage patients outside the exam room and also contribute and promote accurate medical information and advice. However, there have been several examples of physicians who have inappropriately engaged with patients via the internet or social media. According to a research letter in JAMA, 92% of state medical boards have disciplined physicians for inappropriate online behavior. Infractions include violating patient confidentiality; making derogatory remarks about patients; using discriminatory language or practices; and appearing intoxicated in photos. Other physician groups have created general online guidelines for healthcare professionals, but I have yet to see a set of guidelines as comprehensive as the position statement issued by the ACP and FSMB. The document provides specific examples of common online physician activities as well as the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with those activities. It also offers recommended safeguards against any inappropriate behavior. The online activities outlined in the document include:
- Communicating with patients via email, text, or instant message
- Using social media to gather information about patients
- Sharing online educational materials with patients
- Blogging and commenting on other blogs
- Posting patient information on public social media sites
- Collaborating with colleagues via mobile devices and/or the internet
The ACP and the FSMB recognize that social media and online interactions are constantly changing, and say the guidelines are a starting point. They will need to be modified and adapted as technology advances and best practices emerge. In the meantime, the groups encourage discretion, saying physicians should routinely perform surveillance of publicly available material and maintain strict privacy settings about their information.