Social Media for Doctors: A Different Kind of Social Distancing

April 20, 2020 0 Comments

“Social distancing” may have become synonymous with COVID-19, but it can also apply to social media for healthcare professionals. Find out the positives and negatives from engaging on social media as a doctor. 

No one would deny that the ubiquitous nature of digital media means some care must be taken by health professionals around social media use.

Which isn’t to say doctors shouldn’t use social media as it can also be a useful tool but clearly there’s the potential for blurring the lines between the professional and personal.

This is particularly problematic given professional standards and codes of ethics were written pre the advent of social media and have not been updated to encompass social media for doctors and other medical practitioners.

Male doctor with a medical group at the hospital

Social Media for Doctors: The Main Issues

There are five main issues doctors need to consider when it comes to social media use in a professional context.

  1. Breaches of confidentiality and harm to patients. While always an ethical issue for the medical profession, the immediacy of social media can lead to the accidental identification of patients. Casual references to patients, even seemingly anonymised, might still lead to identification, both breaching confidentiality but also potentially leading to patient harm as a consequence.
  2. Defamation. Every profession faces this issue, but when it comes to the delicate nature of treatment and health care, commenting on the social media feeds of other colleagues or industry professionals is a legal minefield that must be avoided. And don’t forget: You can also damage your own reputation by using social media in a non-professional way.
  3. Violation of doctor/patient boundaries. Given the power imbalance between doctors and patients, social media opens up another way in which this can be exploited, even accidentally. Interactions with patients via social media, no matter how innocuous, can constitute a violation of professional boundaries.
  4. Breaching codes, standards and guidelines. Declaring personal beliefs, even by a simple ‘like’ on social media that might contradict or breach prevailing guidelines or standards set out by professional bodies such as the AMA or AHPRA can lead to action being taken by these bodies against individuals in breach. Such can also weaken the medical profession more broadly in terms of contradicting official public health messaging.
  5. Advertising and Promotion. Social media, so often used in digital marketing, can be a minefield if doctors use it to spruik particular treatments or medications. AHPRA has a great guide about what is and isn’t acceptable.

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Social Media for Doctors: A Force for Good

It’s not all negative when it comes to social media for doctors!

Understanding social media platforms and how to use them in a professional context is important, which isn’t to say doctors must or should use them, but there is also no reason not to if it’s done for the right reasons in the right way. Some of the more positive uses of social media for doctors include:

  • Promoting health awareness campaigns
  • Providing information on new technology or medical breakthroughs
  • Offering generic updates about the practice
  • Professional networking
  • Dissemination of non-identified generic basic patient care and education

top view of Medicine doctor hand working with modern computer and smart phone on wooden desk as medical concept

Social Media for Doctors: Three Quick Tips on Use

In conclusion, doctors shouldn’t fear using social media.

As in any professional context, it can be a useful tool, but its use comes with caveats.

Our top three tips on social media for doctors are:

  1. Always obtain and document patient consent to use any information, even when you think you have de-identified the patient.
  2. Stay up to date with your obligations as identified by professional bodies and organisations such as the AMA and AHPRA.
  3. Think before you Tweet, Snap, Insta or Post! If you have any doubt about what you’re about to put out there, you probably shouldn’t!