Scaring physicians away from using social media

Is there a doctor who wants to spend 3 hours per day on social media while running the risk of being sued?

This useful critical review by a freelance journalist at the NEJMJobs site has a focus on some of the litigation risks inherent to the use of social media in healthcare:

"Dr. Pho, who spends up to three hours a day in social media activities, is surely in a minority of physicians who devote considerable time to blogging, Twittering, or engaging in Facebook updates.

Social Media Activity Risks Difficult to Predict

Despite the potential professional benefits of social networking participation, some physicians are approaching the social media realm with trepidation, for fear that personal and professional presences will overlap in a manner that increases liability exposure.

That’s a valid concern, because the medico-legal aspect of social media activities has been little explored and is not well understood. In addition, the obvious risks of incurring HIPAA violations should patients’ health information be unwittingly exposed are a deterrent. “The laws haven’t caught up with social media and networking, so to be safe I don’t blog about my patients,” Dr. Pho said. “Even though I think that interesting or challenging cases can be used as a learning tool, too much of my professional livelihood is at stake.”

None of the physicians interviewed for this article have accepted patients’ requests to become Facebook friends, and all cited concerns that doing so would “cross the boundary” between a personal and professional relationship.

"I think that very few doctors are interacting with patients directly on Facebook because we’re so terrified of being accused of practicing medicine and getting sued. Whatever you type is eternal and a perfect record of whatever you said,” she said. “That makes it all even more scary.”

“We’re concerned about this because there have been instances in which physicians have used Facebook in an inappropriate manner,” said David Troxel, MD, The Doctors Company’s medical director. “Social media networks are not HIPAA compliant and are just not appropriate for any physician-patient communication, so it’s a real liability threat because it’s so easy to lapse into a casual conversation.”

The NEJMJobs article linked in the paragraph above does not discuss the use of social media for medical education of students, residents and patients.

Another area that was not highlighted enough was the widespread use of Facebook "fan pages" by hospitals and physicians to attract patients and create relationships. Does this mean that the patients can be "your fans" but not "your friends"?

Overall, this article is a good review of some of the risks involved with the social media adoption in healthcare.

However, for a more nuanced approach to social media use by physicians, please review this detailed primer by the cardiologist Dr. Wes:

Facebook Friend Request - A young doctor gets a message from a dying patient - NYTimes, 2010.
Image source:, public domain.

Updated: 04/13/2010

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