Docs Need to Disclose Conflicts of Interest on Social Media

Social media can be a useful tool for doctors to communicate with other doctors, patients and the public in general, but doctors run the risk of ethical breaches if they fail to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, according to a new article published online by the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

In the article, Matthew DeCamp, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s division of general internal medicine, warns that doctors open themselves to accusations of ethics violations by failing to disclose, for example, connections to pharmaceutical companies which could influence their opinions, including things like consulting fees.

DeCamp, who is also a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, called for major medical organizations to issue clear guidelines covering this issue -- something they’ve so far failed to do.

DeCamp also notes that failure to disclose conflicts of interest on social media is sometimes due to constraints imposed by social media; for example, doctors may find it difficult to squeeze a full disclosure of their industry connections into 140 characters on Twitter. However they can still include such disclosures in their profiles or link to them with shortened URLs.  



The issues identified by DeCamp will only become more pressing as more doctors adopt social media for professional purposes. Last month I wrote about a survey funded by Pfizer and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research which found that 24.1% of doctors said they use social media in a professional capacity every day, including searching for medical information. The Pfizer survey of 485 docs, including 186 oncologists and 299 primary care physicians, also found that 14.2% of docs surveyed said they share medical information via social media on a daily basis. Meanwhile 61% of docs surveyed said they turn to social media to search for medical information at least once a week, and 46% share medical information via social media on a weekly basis.

Meanwhile some medical schools are starting to offer social media training. In September I wrote about a new social media curriculum being tested at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.  The experimental coursework, funded by a two-year grant from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, will involve first- and second-year medical students looking at their own social media footprints for instances of inappropriate content. Third- and fourth-year students will interview community members to study how the patient population uses social media, and how social media might help doctors communicate with patients about healthcare.

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