Physicians Face Threats and Opportunities from Using Social Media

(20.09.2012) The potential opportunities presented by social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to improve health care must be weighed carefully against the significant drawbacks and responsibilities associated with its use, according to the World Medical Association. Physicians use technology daily at work and accessing these products need not be feared; used with care, social media platforms can provide benefit.

A discussion paper, drawn up by the WMA’s Junior Doctors Network, provides an analysis of how social media relates to patients, the medical profession and health care and concludes that any benefits to patients will only be realised if physicians use ‘the same caution, ingenuity, and scientific rigor dictated by our professional calling and responsibilities.’

The document highlights the use of social media by hundreds of millions of people and outlines the opportunities and threats this poses to the way medicine is practiced. For patients, social media makes it easier to access health information online, while developing online support groups that improve disease outcomes and knowledge. However, the paper notes that such forums can be vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous agents, and the increased ease of access to information or misinformation resulted in potential alterations to the doctor-patient relationship, particularly to diagnosis, testing and treatment.

The document says that both public and private organisations can make use of social media ‘to improve health literacy and knowledge among populations and with individual patients by making use of social media’. But these organisations faced challenges in protecting their online credibility and combatting significant misinformation in circulation on the World Wide Web.

For physicians, the paper acknowledges the possibility of a blurring of professional boundaries, and the risk of privacy breach or unprofessional behaviour. Of particular concern is the protection of patient privacy and confidentiality, long a sacred trust held in the doctor-patient relationship, which the authors find is being threatened by an increasingly public online world.

The paper warns physicians that their personal postings and behaviour have the potential to jeopardise their individual reputations as well as the reputation of the profession as a whole: ‘The immense potential presented by social media must be properly tempered by an awareness of the risks arising from the ease of spread and longevity of digital information. Such risks must be properly managed by physicians and physician associations.’

It also issues a strong warning about online websites rating physicians, saying that these challenged the reputation of physicians.

‘Newly ubiquitous “rating sites” provide no way to verify contentious reviews, which have the potential to destroy a physician’s reputation. Rapid information sharing can spread panic and fear about diseases and treatments across media such as Facebook or Twitter.’

Initial WMA guidance for physicians on using social media was issued for the first time last year. This advised physicians to maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship in accordance with professional ethical guidelines, to routinely monitor their own internet presence, to adopt a conservative approach when disclosing personal information and to ensure that no identifiable patient information be posted in any social media. Several national medical associations now provide guidelines on social media use and WMA advice is for national medical associations to establish comprehensive guidelines about individual physician disclosures and behaviour, training and education on the proper use of social media, and privacy, confidentiality, professionalism and conflict of interest considerations in using such technologies.

Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, Chair of the WMA, said: ‘This discussion paper provides a useful evaluation for all physicians and will be the basis on which the WMA will draw up further guidance for the profession. There is no doubt that the internet provides the medical profession with a powerful new resource in their ability to care for patients. But it is a resource that must be handled responsibly and with caution.’

The White Paper on Social Media and Medicine is avaialbe to download at the publications page.