Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be an effective means for professional and patient engagement, but to avoid pitfalls, make sure you follow seven best practices:
1. Be personable but professional. Physicians represent their profession in the way they treat others and in the quality of the information they provide. They should continue to operate under the professional principle “First, do no harm.”
2. Refrain from offering medical advice. It is better to share general educational tips than specific medical advice, and it may be worth explicitly noting this to your followers.
3. Be careful when posting about patients. Always think before posting: Is this something patients or their family members could see and recognize as their own information? Discussing specific cases even without using a patient’s name may reveal enough information for a third party to recognize a patient. To protect patient identity, explore a medical condition in generalities or use fictionalized accounts rather than using a specific case. If you need to use an actual case, get the patient’s consent. And always make sure the patient descriptions you use are not disrespectful.
4. Be selective when interacting with patients. Whether in real life or digital life, doctors have to determine their own boundaries and comfort level when it comes to engaging with patients outside of the exam room. But in general, it’s a good idea to be selective about who to friend or follow on social media, whether they are patients or not.
5. Protect against misinformation. Physicians on social media have a professional responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the health-related content they create or share. Be wary of sharing an unreferenced statement or statistic that another user has shared. If you cannot verify it, either don’t share it or add a caveat that the information has not been personally verified. It’s better to share content that includes a link to an authoritative source.
6. Follow institutional policies. Most simply request that employees remain professional in their social media presence and clearly state that the opinions shared are personal and do not reflect those of the employer. But some institutions are more conservative than others. For example, they may limit individual rights to free speech that contradicts the employer’s position. When in doubt, seek guidance from a local mentor to sort out the specifics of the situation.
7. Avoid conflicts of interest. If you are getting paid for mentioning a product or even an idea, you must reveal it. Marketing partnerships should not be hidden in a small hyperlink. Additionally, consider the ethical implications of your endorsements and statements, and make sure they are consistent with current standards of care and evidence-based medicine.
Read the full FPM article: “Social Media for Doctors: Taking Professional and Patient Engagement to the Next Level.”
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