Docs urged not to Facebook patients

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In this age of texting, tweets and Facebook "friends", doctors should show restraint when it comes to reaching out to patients through social media, new guidelines say.

Updated recommendations for online ethics from the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) say the key is drawing a clear line between professional life and social life.

If physicians fail to do so, the "potential dangers are confidentiality concerns, replacement of face-to-face or phone interaction, and ambiguity or misinterpretation of digital interactions," the American College of Physicians said.

Some of the key recommendations:

  • Doctors should not contact or "friend" patients through personal social media such as Facebook.
  • Text-messaging should not be used for passing along medical information except when there is patient consent. Even then, doctors should use "extreme caution," the guidelines said.
  • Careful judgment is needed when a doctor is contacted through e-mail or other electronic communications by someone who is seeking medical advice but has had no previous contact with the doctor. In such situations, it is usually best for the doctor to encourage the person to schedule an office visit, or, in the case of an urgent concern, to go to the nearest emergency department.
  • Doctors should establish an online professional profile so that it appears first during an online search, instead of a review of the doctor from a physician ranking site. This can provide more control, so that the information read by patients is accurate.
  • Medical trainees need to be careful about what they post online, or they could damage their future careers.

"It is important for physicians to be aware of the implications for confidentiality and how the use of online media for non-clinical purposes impacts trust in the medical profession," Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president and CEO of the FSMB, said in the news release.

The policy paper appears online and in the April 16 print issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

More information

The U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology outlines what is done to protect the privacy and security of your health information.

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