A study by researchers at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, US found that 72% of fresh urology graduates had public Facebook profiles of which 40% contained “potentially objectionable” content.

This included pictures of the doctors’ drunk and medical ethics violations such as revealing their patient’s health information. The study brought to light the concern that a physician’s social media use has the potential to break patient trust.

Lead researcher Dr Kevin Koo said, "we all have a role to play in making sure the high standards of patient confidentiality and the doctor-patient relationship are upheld."

Many have examined the implications of HCPs utilising social media

The issue has been a concern for the medical profession for some time now with many GPs surgeries, hospitals, universities and medical societies creating guidelines on what they deem as inappropriate online behaviour.

For example, the American Medical Association issued guidelines in 2010encouraging doctors to "consider separating personal and professional content online" and reiterated the importance of patient privacy. Despite this, Koo is uncertain how many doctors "even know that guidelines exist."

The study found one case in which a patient’s x-ray and name were included in a social media post. Another study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that of 13,000 tweets by 237 doctors, 6% were a potential breach of patient confidentiality.

Interestingly, in a study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, in which 48 medical boards were asked which of ten social media scenarios would prompt an investigation, most said misleading claims about treatment outcomes would. In a separate case in January, a Canadian nurse, who posted about her grandfather’s inadequate care in another clinic, was penalised.

Maintaining a healthy work-personal life balance

It can be difficult not to cross the line into prohibiting a doctor’s right to share their lives or their opinions however as under “potentially objectionable” content, posts expressing views on religion and politics were also included in the New Hampshire study.

“No one expects doctors to never post an opinion,” Koo said. "We realise they don't live in a vacuum.”

Dr Matthew DeCamp, from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore suggests doctors "ask yourself if this is something you really want in a public space.” Some doctors have mastered this balance well and created stellar social media presences.

Most guidelines seem to contain the same key behavioral rules and recommendations. Firstly all doctors must be accountable for all content posted on any of their social medical accounts. Secondly it is advised that doctors do not accept friend or follow requests from current or previous patients and in general avoid interacting with them online.

Additionally, patient photos or patient-specific information should not be posted online under any circumstances. Doctors should also be mindful that others may look up to them for general medical advice and so if they do post any, it should be up to date and as accurate as possible.

However social media can also help the medical profession in general as a means to market services and promote good health practices and there are a number of techniques that can help create the best website for a medical centre. MIMS

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