Medical Professionals Must Tread Carefully in the Digital Age

In the ever-expanding digital age, the lines between personal and professional practices continue to be blurred by social media.  Facebook and Twitter have positioned themselves as personal social media sites, while the site LinkedIn stresses a more professional appearance.  Although people go on to social media sites to share their personal opinions and photos, researchers warn that some professionals should think carefully before they post certain things.

A study by a professor at the University of California sought to determine what is and isn’t acceptable in the digital realm.  For his research, Dr. Ryan Greysen presented a group of state medical licensing directors with a variety of social media scenarios, ranging from mostly innocent to completely absurd.

The survey asked the licensing directors which scenarios would prompt board investigation by their state.  Examples of the scenarios presented to directors include a doctor posting drunken photos to a social media account, and a surgeon using foul and demeaning language on his website.

The questionnaire was “based on things medical boards told us they were concerned about,” said Greysen.  “It’s not hard to find images just like the ones we used with just some limited searching.”

The goal of the research was to help establish social media guidelines for medical professionals, but none of the scenarios prompted unanimous review, meaning that was is acceptable in one state may be deemed inappropriate in another.

Survey Findings

Below are the survey findings and the percent of states that would conduct board review. (48 states reported)

  • Citing misleading information about clinical outcomes (81%)
  • Using patient images without consent (79%),
  • Misrepresenting credentials (77%)
  • Inappropriately contacting patients (77%)
  • Depicting alcohol intoxication (73%)
  • Violating patient confidentiality (65%)
  • Using discriminatory speech (60%)
  • Showing alcohol use without intoxication (40%)

As indicted in the findings, there is moderate consensus for certain actions, but none are unanimous.  Not only is it concerning for medical professionals who are wondering if their actions are acceptable, but it also offers warning that certain illegal activates may go unregulated.

“It’s not 100 percent, which gives you some pause,” says Dr. Vineet Arora who works at University of Chicago Medical Center. “What triggers an investigation in those states? If this doesn’t do it, what does?”

Arora says she believes most mistakes are made by people who are relatively new to social sites and are still learning the appropriateness of social media.  Although there are no defined social guidelines, medical professionals should strongly consider the implications of their actions before posting something for the whole world to see.

Sean Sullivan comments

Medical professionals should heed these warnings very carefully.

Sometimes just the inference of impropriety or unethical behavior can get someone in trouble with the state licensing boards.  The state licensing laws are written very broadly as to what the regulators can penalize professionals for.  Think about what you’re posting so you don’t have to go into a hearing to defend yourself from something you posted online.

Most licensing disciplinary actions are publicized on the Internet, so do some research before delving into the world of social media.  Professionals have to remember that friends and potential patients could be looking for them online.

Related source: NPR.org

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