Why doctors should be cautious of what they post on social media

M3 India Newsdesk May 09, 2018

Like physicians all over the world, a large number of physicians in India are also using social media as a professional platform for health communication. But with the lack of clear guidelines of good practices they often find themselves in tricky situations. Here we delve deeper to come out with guiding pointers to help the physicians to reap the benefits of social media platforms, rather than regret it.

 

 


Medical ethics impose certain restrictions on doctors over their online conduct, which is why medical professionals need to be cautious about their presence on social media.Even minor activities on social media that could supposedly be 'construed' as harmless, can take a sudden turn for the worse and ruin the reputation of a person overnight. The risks of social media multiply manifold in the medical profession, which is why doctors need to be extra careful about their social media activity.


 

Patients tend to send their medical reports to doctors on WhatsApp and doctors too prescribe them medicines based on these reports. At present, India does not have clearly defined guidelines for online consultation.

"The practice should never be followed as it can land a doctor into legal trouble."

-Dr Amandeep Aggarwal 

Chairman of the Action Committee-cum-Legal Cell of Indian Medical Association, Punjab

In March, the registrar of Government Medical College, Jammu, was fired over a Facebook post. Dr Amit Kumar, Registrar in the department of anaesthesia, had written a post, pointing out that the elevator that was just inaugurated by the state health minister had already been functional for a while. Taking offense to this observation, the government promptly fired him, his termination letter reading: “It was noticed that Dr Amit Kumar used his personal social media account (Facebook) and comment with the intent of provoking readers.”

While Resident Doctors' Association came out in support of Kumar and his termination was revoked, the incident illustrates how violating social media protocol can cost doctors dearly. The Jammu & Kashmir government had issued orders on December 26, stating:

No government employee should use personal media for any political activity or endorse the posts or tweets or blogs of any political figure and also shall not use their accounts in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that the government endorses or sanctions their personal activities in any matter whatsoever.


Indian Dental Association, Jammu, has also issued an advisory regarding social media dos and don'ts. Its main points include protecting patients' privacy, avoiding discussion on controversial issues, desisting from writing inappropriate comments, and refraining from demeaning anybody. Dr Bhupinder Singh, secretary of the association, says doctors should use social media for constructive purposes alone.


Social media checklist

Navigating social media is akin to walking on thin ice for doctors, an area that one should tread with caution.

According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, titled: 'A social media self-evaluation checklist for medical practitioners', doctors active on social media need to take care of the following:

  • What they share: Doctors need to be careful about posts regarding patients, colleagues, employers, and healthcare in general. Once it is online, hundreds of people will be reading the post in a matter of minutes.
  • Evidence-based information: Any medical information or advice doctors post should be based on latest evidence. Also, it's advisable that the information is regularly updated.
  • Patients’ confidentiality: It is doctors' ethical duty to protect patients’ confidentiality. If they are writing about a case, they need to ensure that no identifying detail of the patient is being shared.
  • Copyright issues: Before posting any medical material, photos or videos, doctors should seek permission or give credit for authorship. They need to ensure that they respect copyright and sources when posting information online.
  • Adding disclaimers: It helps prevent online medical posts from being misunderstood. A good disclaimer to add would be: “This information is intended as a patient education resource only and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem.”
  • Pharmaceutical industry connections: Doctors should be wary of their social media profile revealing any connection with a pharmaceutical firm as it might raise questions about their integrity.
  • Memberships: To maintain their public image, doctors should check if their social media profile shows them to be a member of any group that might be considered racist, sexist, or otherwise derogatory.

Why it matters

A survey in the US involving 4,000 medical practitioners revealed that 35% of the doctors received friend requests from a patient or their relative. The survey also mentioned an anecdote of a patient, who grew suspicious about her doctor's sobriety during morning appointments ever since she came across photographs of him on Facebook, partying often and getting intoxicated.

Sharing multiple such case studies, the Federation of State Medical Boards has devised 'Model Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice'.


Apart from these points, doctors should avoid requests for online medical advice and be forthcoming on their social media profiles about their employment, credentials, and conflicts of interest. The guidelines also discourage doctors from interacting with their current as well as former patients on social media.

In an age where medical social media community (#medsm, #hcsm) is a thing, doctors should stay abreast of the guidelines put forth by their hospital and their state, lest a loose post attract trouble.

 

The story was contributed by Arjun Sharma, a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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