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Medical boards keep wary eye on doctors' social media posts

A survey of board executives finds that inappropriate communication with patients is among online behavior by physicians that could lead to an investigation.

By — Posted Jan. 28, 2013

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When doctors go to social media websites, they may want to think twice about posting patients' photos without permission.

Using the images could be considered unprofessional conduct by a state medical board, according to a new study.

Other online physician behavior viewed as troublesome by boards: citing misleading information about clinical outcomes; misrepresenting credentials; and inappropriately contacting patients.

The survey of 48 state medical board executives, published in the Jan. 15 Annals of Internal Medicine, found that these social media activities likely would prompt a board investigation of a doctor. The study concluded that physicians should never engage in such behaviors.

“When you post something publicly online, it's something that could be online in perpetuity,” said study co-author Humayun Chaudhry, DO, president and CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards, which represents 70 boards that oversee MDs and DOs.

What triggers an investigation?

One of the survey's 10 hypothetical vignettes of social media posed to medical board executives shows a photo of three doctors, drinks in hand, at a hospital holiday party. Forty percent of executives said a complaint to the board about the posting would trigger an investigation — a “low consensus” among survey respondents.

But 73% took issue with a vignette of a doctor who posted photos of himself intoxicated.

Getting a “moderate consensus” among respondents of posts that would prompt an investigation were a scenario of a physician's blog that used potential patient identifiers and a vignette about discriminatory language on a doctor's Facebook page. The least troublesome of the 10 vignettes was a doctor's blog describing a clinical encounter with no patient identifiers (only 16% of executives said it would lead to an investigation).

“People can really do a lot to stay out of trouble by applying common sense and avoiding the trap that you can do something online you wouldn't do in real life,” said study lead author Ryan Greysen, MD, MHS. He is an assistant professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

Previous research has shown that doctors and medical students can get in trouble online. An article co-written by Dr. Greysen in the March 21, 2012, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 71% of state medical boards had investigated doctors for violating professionalism online. A study, also co-written by Dr. Greysen, in the Sept. 23, 2009, issue of JAMA said 60% of medical schools had incidents of students posting unprofessional content online.

Guidance for doctors

In 2012, the federation issued guidelines to help doctors maintain professionalism when using social media. That guidance discourages physicians from interacting with patients on social networking sites such as Facebook and says doctors should adhere to the same principles of professionalism online and offline.

Delegates to the American Medical Association Interim Meeting in November 2010 adopted policy on social media use that advises medical students and physicians to be professional online. They should keep appropriate boundaries when communicating with patients online and respect patient confidentiality, the policy says.

The Annals study notes that improper behavior online can do more than spark a board investigation; it can lead to loss of employment or lawsuits by patients over privacy violations. The study said greater awareness of potential pitfalls is needed among doctors to avoid unprofessional behavior online.

To avoid problems, Dr. Greysen said, physicians should apply the same ethical and professional conduct online that they do in their daily actions offline.

“This may be a wake-up call to some doctors, not only to the value of Internet communication, but also to the dangers,” Dr. Chaudhry said.

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External links

“Online Professionalism Investigations by State Medical Boards: First, Do No Harm,”Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 15 (link)

“Model Policy Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice,” Federation of State Medical Boards (link)

“Physician Violations of Online Professionalism and Disciplinary Actions: A National Survey of State Medical Boards,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 2012 (link)

“Online Posting of Unprofessional Content by Medical Students,” JAMA, Sept. 23, 2009 (link)

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