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May 9, 2017

The hazards of doctors posting to Facebook

Daily Briefing

    Many recent medical school graduates post "unprofessional or potentially objectionable content" on social media—and some even share private patient information, according to a new study in BJU International.

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    For the study, researchers searched Facebook for the profiles of 281 urologists who graduated from U.S. residency programs in 2015. The researchers found that 201—or 72 percent—of the graduates had publicly accessible profiles. Of those, 80 profiles had "unprofessional or potentially objectionable content," the researchers said. And 27 of those 80 profiles depicted unprofessional behavior, such as intoxication, uncensored profanity, unlawful behavior, and confidential patient information.

    According to the researchers, the most common objectionable content involved:

    • Uncensored profanity;
    • The discussion of sensitive topics, such as religion and politics; and
    • References to, or depictions of, intoxication, sexual behavior, or inappropriate attire.

    One percent of posts pertained to illegal behavior, and 2 percent of posts disparaged the workplace or a colleague. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of physicians in the study posted explicit or private details about patients.

    Most of the offensive posts were written by the physicians themselves, Liz Neporent reports for Medscape. Men and women were equally like to post inappropriate content.

    How to respond

    According to lead author Kevin Koo, a urology specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, physicians using social media need to think about how they are going to maintain trust within the profession and between patients and providers.

    He advised providers to maintain boundaries between public and personal personas and ensure that all electronic communications with patients—including email and social media—are used only in an established provider-patient relationship and with the patient's consent.

    "You want to think about things like the intent of your posts, how you will maintain confidentiality, and what you will do to maintain ethical principles," Koo said, adding clinicians should not forget that social media posts can last even after they are "deleted."

    Koo suggested that institutions can help physicians exercise caution on social media by implementing social media policies. He recommended the 2013 blueprint issued by the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards as a starting point.

    But Koo stressed that the study wasn't designed to pass judgment on physicians who use social media—rather, it aimed to illuminate the realities that physicians face, and to remind physicians to keep to the same high standards online that they do offline. "What we say and do on social media can impact the care of our patients, and also how we are viewed as professionals—the same as it would in the real world," he said (Koo et al., BJUI, 4/9; Neporent, Medscape, 5/1).

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