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Physicians face unique challenges and scrutiny when using social media, but certain safeguards can help limit risk.

Fam Pract Manag. 2022;29(3):15-20

This content conforms to AAFP criteria for CME.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial relationships.

Over the past decade, social media has become a vital element of both professional and social life. Physicians use a wide variety of social media tools, including networking platforms, blogs, wikis, media-sharing sites, professional information sites, and virtual reality/gaming environments. While these evolving tools can be beneficial, social media does have a dark side and increasingly poses hazards, personally and professionally.

All social media users risk receiving false or misleading information and becoming targets of financial scams and personal attacks, but physicians also face ethical, licensing, and legal risks. Multiple physician organizations have warned that social media activity can influence the public's perception of clinicians, their organizations, and their specialties.13 Additionally, some online activities may jeopardize physicians' employment and ability to practice medicine.

In this article, we discuss specific hazard areas for physicians, problems that can arise from social media misuse, and personal and legal protections that are available.

KEY POINTS

  • While social media tools can be beneficial to physicians, they increasingly pose hazards, both personally and professionally.

  • Physicians should avoid posts that contain reputation-damaging information, false or misleading information, patient-identifying information, sponsored information, or copyrighted information.

  • Misuse of social media has resulted in physicians being sanctioned by professional societies or boards as well as dismissed or suspended by employers.

FIVE HAZARDS TO AVOID

When using social media, physicians should be aware of the following hazards and use caution in these areas.

1. Reputation-damaging information. Physicians' reputations affect their ability to practice medicine in their community. Their reputations can be aided or damaged by information they post online, or by what others post about them. Online information is widely available and perpetually present; it can never be fully deleted. Physicians' individual social media profile data, such as photos, posts, comments, and “likes,” may provide unintended and incomplete insights into their qualifications, personality, values, and priorities.4 For example, old posts may contain outdated medical advice or outdated professional information. Physicians often apply for many positions and credentials during their professional lives, so this enduring digital footprint may cause lasting and sometimes irreparable damage to their reputations or careers.5

Posting negative comments can be particularly damaging to a physician's reputation. According to a 2020 survey, physicians who post even one negative comment on Facebook, especially related to race or gender, lose credibility among potential patients.6 Negative commenting includes using profanity or discriminatory language to describe others and “venting” about patients, colleagues, trainees, or health care institutions.5,7 Other, more obvious types of unprofessional behavior include posting images of sexual suggestiveness or intoxication, taking digital photographs during surgery, posing with weapons or alcohol, and other activities considered harmful to an individual or the profession.5 While users may think they are posting online privately or anonymously, their identity can often be discovered.8

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