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Social Media Marketing

Ayesha Salim (US) - Should Your Doctor be Using Facebook?

IDG Connect surveyed 102 US IT professionals and found that 59% think the use of social media by healthcare professionals impacts healthcare positively. When asked if the use of social media in healthcare is a big confidentiality concern, only 26% see it as a substantial problem. Does this mean social media is fine to use by healthcare professionals? Where is the line?

Right this moment as this very blog is being written, tweets are being used to share information, witty banter is being exchanged on Facebook and exciting holiday snaps are being shared amongst friends. The majority of these posts are harmless and will not bear any negative long- term significance. But how would it feel to come across a status update from your doctor about your visit? Perhaps there isn't much in the update to go on - as your doctor has kept the details of your visit private. But there is still that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach that your doctor is talking about you even if that might not be the case. Has your doctor just crossed a line?

Benefits of social media

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter offer many challenges and opportunities. According to a survey, one quarter of doctors said they use social media in a professional capacity every day, including searching for medical information. 61% of doctors surveyed said they turn to social media to search for medical information at least once a week, and 46% share medical information via social media on a weekly basis. What about their attitudes towards social media in general? 58% said social media is a good way to get current information, 58% stated that social media enabled them to care for patients more effectively, and 60% said it helped them deliver a higher quality of care to patients.

Of course, being able to share medical information and engage with patients offers many advantages. The updates are in real-time and patients also find it easier to communicate with their doctors this way, as most use some form of social media to communicate with their circle of friends anyway.

But the problem starts when trying to protect patient privacy and maintaining appropriate boundaries between professional and social relationships. For instance, what if your patient tries to ‘friend' you on Facebook? In an article posted by the Guardian, it was found that increasing numbers of patients are making amorous advances to doctors through Facebook, Twitter and text messages in order to strike up a relationship. Patients are increasingly using social media rather than letters or flowers to make their feelings clear, such as following a doctor on Twitter, "poking" them on Facebook or flirting with them online. In guidance issued in July on use of social media, the BMA advised doctors and medical students not to accept Facebook requests from current or ex-patients because of the "difficult ethical issues" and also to adopt "conservative privacy settings" on their Facebook pages.

Online professionalism

This isn't the only dilemma social media presents doctors with. What about taking care of the doctors ‘image'? Doctors clearly have to represent a professional image to their patients at all times. But they are also only human with regular social lives like the rest of us. Is it really so wrong of them to post a few pictures of them acting silly with their friends?

But here is the part where it gets very tricky. For instance, is it ok to come across a picture of your doctor drinking at an office party? Maybe this could count as acceptable. After all, a doctor after a hard day's work is allowed to have some down-time too. But wait a minute. What if your doctor is wearing scrubs in that photo. Would that make you think he's drinking on the job? More crucially, would it make you reassess your opinion of the doctor all together?

So what pictures are appropriate and what aren't? It might be fair to say that a good degree of common sense should be involved; however a lot of people want specifics. A survey published recently, makes it clear that some things posted online will almost always get doctors in trouble. More than 80% of the boards that responded said a doctor posting a clearly misleading claim on his website - something like ‘I can cure your cancer - guaranteed!' - would be cause for an investigation. Perhaps it is fair to say that doctors will not be judged for what they do in their personal life so long as they are careful about what they decide to share on a social media site. Perhaps in seeing an inappropriate photo it is not the doctor's capability that will be called into question but the doctor's common sense for creating the post to begin with.

Patient privacy

Doctors and other healthcare professionals not only have to worry about ‘protecting their own image' but also ensuring that their posts online are not traceable back to the patient. Like the hypothetical situation mentioned earlier in the blog, this is the very issue that one doctor faced when she complained about a patient on her Facebook page. The post talked about a patient that continually showed up late to her scheduled appointments. A screenshot was taken of the doctor's status and many commentators were outraged with the doctor's post - despite the fact that the hospital later determined that no patient privacy laws were broken. Although no privacy laws were actually broken - it was maintained that an ethical professional line had been breached.

Physician-only social networks the answer?

With the plethora of problems that comes with using social media to engage with patients, perhaps doctors are better off avoiding social media altogether? The waters are too murky; what one person thinks is appropriate might be completely inappropriate to another. But there could be a middle-ground. In recent times, there has been a proliferation of physician-only networks which provide a secure platform for physicians to share and engage with physicians. Doximity, an online social network for physicians has been dubbed as ‘a secure Facebook for doctors'. The site gives a chance for physicians to collaborate, share lab reports and ‘securely communicate about things that matter'. The goal is helping doctors provide better health care.

There is no doubt that the use of social networks in healthcare offers many advantages. But as with most things, a degree of caution is required, particularly when dealing with sensitive data. Maybe Dr. Alex Blau has the right idea when he says, "The general wisdom is don't say anything you wouldn't say in a crowded elevator."

By Ayesha Salim, Copywriter, IDG Connect

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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