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Doctors told to procede with extreme caution on social media

The American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) both recommended that doctors should exercise caution and restraint when talking to patients on social media.

A policy paper called "Online Medical Professionalism: Patient and Public Relationships" published on April 11 in the Annals of Internal Medicine lists guidelines for physicians to follow in order to keep their personal and work lives separate.

"Digital communications and social media use continue to increase in popularity among the public and the medical profession,"Dr. Phyllis Guze, chair of the board of regents for the ACP, said in a press release. "This policy paper provides needed guidance on best practices to inform standards for the professional conduct of physicians online."

Recommendations include:

  • Not "friending" or connecting with patients on social media
  • Not using text messaging for medical interactions, unless doctors exercise extreme caution and have consent from the patient
  • If using e-mails or other electronic communications, keep them within an established patient-physician relationship and with patient consent
  • If a person reaches out to a doctor through electronic means and it is not an patient, physicians should use their judgment and usually encourage the person to schedule an office visit or go to the emergency room, which ever is more appropriate
  • Creating a professional profile that will show up first on a search instead of results from a physician ranking site in order to control your image
  • Being cautious of what material doctors post and what online content is attributed to them
  • Encouraging education programs that take a pro-active approach to a person's digital image or online reputation

"It is important for physicians to be aware of the implications for confidentiality and how the use of online media for non-clinical purposes impacts trust in the medical profession," Humayun Chaudhry, president and CEO of FSMB, said in a press release.

Dr. Kevin Pho, an internist who practices in Nashua, N.H., told USA Today that the advice is soild, but he is afraid it will scare off more doctors from using social media, many of whom avoid the medium. When used professionally, Pho believes patients can benefit from using doctor's social media accounts which can link to important health stories and accurate health information websites. E-mails can also keep patients in better touch with their doctors.

"Social media can help better connect doctors and patients," he says. "It's a shame that a lot of doctors are shying away from it."

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