Social media is undoubtedly a ubiquitous part of modern life, and illness is a major part of that. Research conducted recently showed that 60% of us go online when we're ill in a bid to find out more information, with 32% turning to their social media communities to find out from peers.
Whilst physicians are regular users of social media too, research published at the turn of the year showed that their social habits tend to revolve around involvement with peer communities, where they seek help and knowledge sharing from fellow physicians.
Few actively engage with patients, least of all on more mainstream social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Back in 2011 it was found that 85% of doctors would ignore a friend request from a patient on Facebook.
It's a finding that no doubt had an influence upon some new guidance issued by the American College of Physicians and Federation of State Medical Boards. They are recommending that physicians do not friend patients on social media.
"Digital communications and social media use continue to increase in popularity among the public and the medical profession," Dr. Phyllis Guze, chairwoman of the Board of Regents, American College of Physicians, said in a statement. "This policy paper provides needed guidance on best practices to inform standards for the professional conduct of physicians online."
The guidance makes several recommendations for how physicians should use social media, including:
-- Physicians should keep their professional and personal personas separate.
-- E-mail or other electronic communications should only be used by physicians within an established patient-physician relationship and with patient consent.
-- Situations in which a physician is approached via electronic means for clinical advice in the absence of a patient-physician relationship should be handled with judgment and usually should be addressed by an office visit.
-- Establishing a professional profile so that it "appears" first during a search, instead of a physician ranking site, can provide some measure of control that the information read by patients prior to the initial encounter or thereafter is accurate.
-- Many trainees may inadvertently harm their future careers by not responsibly posting material or actively policing their online content.
Given that patients are increasingly turning to the web for advice on medical issues, it is increasingly important that they get accurate advice when they do so. Whilst I can understand the caution contained in the guidance, it is necessary to consider how healthcare groups can engage with patients via social media.