Physicians should pause before hitting “send” on an e-mail, tweet, or other digital communication to ensure that the communication will uphold their professional obligations to patients and not mar the reputation of the profession, urges a new joint position paper released by the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).
Questionable physician behavior online is not uncommon, suggested a 2012 study that found 92% of state medical boards had received reports of online violations of medical professionalism. The most commonly reported violations were inappropriate communication with patients (such as sexual misconduct), inappropriate medical practices such as prescribing of medications outside the physician-patient relationship, and misrepresentation of the physician’s credentials. A previous study had documented online misbehavior by medical students. But Humayun J. Chaudhry, DO, MS, SM, FSMB president and chief executive officer and one of the study’s coauthors, noted that it was a surprise to see so many licensed physicians getting into trouble online.
“The feeling was that licensed physicians would be more careful,” he explained during a press briefing held at the ACP’s annual meeting in April. “We were surprised the numbers don’t bear that out.”
A follow-up study by the same group of researchers found that reports of certain types of online infractions were very likely to trigger an investigation of a physician.
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.
“A comment you have not thought through can take on a life of its own,” Chaudhry said. “Be careful what you post.”