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What are the limits on social media use by doctors?

Social media has largely reinvented both how people socialize to how they do business -- and the line between people's personal lives and professional lives often get blurred.

That's a fact that doctors would do well to remember if they want to avoid becoming the target of an administrative investigation and hearing over the misuse of social media.

Attorneys say they've noticed an uptick in the number of investigations being done by medical boards in recent years -- and an increased level of aggressiveness. There's a pervasive sense that doctors have to be increasingly watchful of how they conduct their private lives -- including on social media.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has even taken the step of providing guidelines on how to use social media professionally -- which reiterates the idea that medical boards don't draw a lot of distinction between a doctor's professional life and his or her personal life. Among the recommendations are these tips:

  • Learn to use your privacy settings and restrict social content from public view. This helps avoid lapses in professionalism that could negatively affect how a doctor is seen by his or her patients and community.
  • Limit who has access to your personal social pages. It's generally better to avoid becoming socially connected (by "friending" or following) with patients to help ensure confidentiality and propriety.
  • Be cautious about turning medical situations into a joke. What might be funny to someone inside the profession could be considered insensitive and callous to others. For example, joking about patients with bizarre complaints may be perceived as a coping mechanism for stress among your peers, but not by patients, their families or the medical board.
  • Never make remarks on social media that could be used to identify a patient. While there are stories that no doubt make entertaining reading, you run the risk of a patient being recognized by the circumstances you describe.
  • If you notice a colleague behaving inappropriately online, you are expected to bring the issue up to your colleague. If he or she fails to change it, you're expected to report it to the medical board.

Those are some rather stiff expectations -- but medical boards are strongly interested in preserving the public's trust in doctors. For doctors, the personal restrictions are just a necessary part of business in today's world.

Source: Medscape.com, "Surviving a Medical Board Investigation," Mark Crane, accessed Feb. 05, 2018

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