Watch What You Post!

Study Links Social Media Posts, Professional Credibility

June 28, 2019 09:59 am Michael Devitt

Although social media carries risks for anyone who uses it, the stakes can be much higher for family physicians and other health care professionals. Posting a carelessly worded comment or a questionable photo can severely damage one's reputation and make it difficult -- especially for physicians just starting a practice -- to establish goodwill and trust in the community.

[social media button on keyboard]

Results of a controlled field study conducted in Canada and published in the April issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research show how important it is for health care professionals to pay close attention to how they may be perceived based on their use of social media. The study(www.jmir.org) found that health care professionals who post even one negative comment on a Facebook profile may lose credibility in the eyes of potential patients/clients, which can adversely affect an individual's willingness to become a patient of that health professional in the future.

"This study provides the first evidence of the impact health professionals' personal online disclosures can have on credibility," said co-author Serge Desmarais, Ph.D., an associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, in a news release.(news.uoguelph.ca) "This finding is significant not only because health professionals use social media in their personal lives, but (because they) are also encouraged to use it to promote themselves and engage with the public."

Study Design and Methods

Story Highlights
  • New research from Canada highlights the effect a single negative social media post can have on a health care professional's credibility.
  • Researchers asked participants to rate mock Facebook profiles of health care professionals who, ostensibly, had posted either an ambiguous or a negative comment about their workday.
  • Participants rated the credibility of the profile owner who posted the negative comment significantly lower than that of the profile owner who posted the ambiguous comment.

In the study, 357 Canadian adults were randomly assigned to view a pair of mock Facebook profiles for "Sarah" and "Chad." The profile photos for both featured a sunset instead of a person to control for potential bias related to facial features, and the profile included comments modeled on actual status updates from previous studies of health care professionals who used Facebook. The profiles were created with the following attributes:

  • gender (male or female),
  • health profession (physician or veterinarian) and
  • type of workday comment posted (ambiguous or expressing frustration).

The posted ambiguous comment was, "Started with new electronic patient charts today … interesting experience for sure."

The posted comment expressing frustration was, "What is it with some people?? I know I only went through 9 years of university … but really, I know what I'm talking about … yeesh!!"

Participants reviewed the content of one or the other randomly assigned mock profiles, then completed a survey of personality ratings for that mock profile owner organized into three general categories (competence, caring and trustworthiness). Participants also answered a question about how likely they were to become a client or patient of the mock profile owner.

Key Findings

After accounting for all variables, the type of workday comment posted was the only factor that had a pronounced effect on credibility rating. On a scale of 0 to 100, the average credibility rating for mock profile owners who posted the ambiguous comment was 67.9, while the rating for owners who posted the comment expressing frustration was 56.7.

"That's a meaningful drop," Desmarais said. "This shows that it takes just one simple comment for people to view you as less professional and to decide they don't want to become a client of yours. Depending on who sees your posts, you may really hurt your reputation just by being up late one night, feeling frustrated and posting your thoughts online."

Those credibility ratings had a significant effect on a person's willingness to become a patient or client of the profile owner. According to the researchers, credibility rating was responsible for 86% of the variation in a participant's willingness to become a client. And because most participants perceived the negative profile comment as a reflection of the profile owner's credibility, the authors concluded that the negative comment made participants less likely to engage with that profile owner as a prospective patient or client.

The researchers concluded that health care professionals need to better understand how their use of even private social media could affect their credibility with the public. Because one's professional and personal lives can easily become blurred on social media, the authors recommended that health care professionals -- in particular, those just starting a career -- adhere to social media guidelines that emphasize professionalism to prevent credibility damage and remain a trusted source of information.

AAFP Expert Discusses Implications for FPs

As the AAFP's social media manager, Kirk Ackerson oversees the Academy's social media outreach efforts. He also helped create "Social Media for Family Physicians: Guidelines and Resources for Success," a guide for members that offers insight into the pros and cons of social media use, as well as specific how-tos for various platforms.

Ackerson told AAFP News that although the guideline was first published in 2013, most of its recommendations are still relevant.

"While we recommend that family physicians restrict access to their personal social accounts and instead use business accounts when publicly sharing information, there unfortunately still exists a need to self-censure before posting," Ackerson said. "This isn't to discourage family physicians from using and enjoying the various social networks today; it's simply a recommendation to be intentional in their use."

For FPs who are just branching out into social media, Ackerson offered the following tips:

  1. Understand the context of what you are posting and recognize that different audiences may react differently to and/or potentially misinterpret the same comment or image.
  2. Consider all social media comments -- even those sent or posted privately -- to be public information.
  3. Because physicians are held to a higher standard than many individuals in our society, always be aware of the potential risks to your professional reputation before engaging online.

Along with these tips, the guideline offers suggestions on how FPs can create a social media policy for their practice and a flowchart for determining the best ways to establish and maintain a social media presence.

Related AAFP News Coverage
Is Social Media Changing the Doctor-Patient Relationship?
Surveys Reveal Age-related Differences in Communication Preferences

(6/8/2018)

Fresh Perspectives: Patients Trust Social Media, so Be Their Trusted Source
(7/7/2017)

More from AAFP
FPM: Social Media: Strategies for Building Greater Connections With Your Patients
(July/August 2014)