Docs Shouldn't "Friend" Patients

While it’s taken for granted that most consumer-facing companies should have a presence on social media, and the same goes for many professionals, that’s not the case for one key group. Physicians should not “friend” or otherwise contact their patients via social media, according to a policy paper on guidelines from the American College of Physicians and Federation of State Medical Boards, titled “Online Medical Professionalism: Patient and Public Relationships.”


The medical industry organizations recommend that physicians should keep their personal lives entirely separate from their professional lives, which means limiting the extent of patient contact through informal channels like Facebook or Twitter. Email and other forms of electronic communication are permissible to the extent they take place in an established patient-physician relationship, and with the patient’s consent. Instances where patients ask for medical advice via electronic channels should be steered into a personal, face-to-face appointment.


While it’s not hard to see why doctors would be leery of letting patients get too close online, it’s also clear that social media can play a valuable role in medical care.


Last year I wrote about a new social media training program for medical students being offered by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, funded in part by a two-year grant from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. The grant, bestowed as part of the foundations’ “Education and Training to Professionalism Initiative,” will help educate medical students about the uses of social media in the professional setting, as well as the boundaries they should observe, both out of respect for patient privacy and in order to protect themselves.


A recent survey published in JAMA found that 60% of medical schools reported that students had posted “unprofessional” content on the Internet. A central part of the curriculum 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.

3 comments about "Docs Shouldn't "Friend" Patients".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 16, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.

    I agree. My former students are candidates for being friends but not current ones.

  2. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, April 16, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.

    I am not sure I agree that there should be set in stone rules for something that is evolving every day. Guidelines and guard rails for sure, but we need to not only experiment and see what works best for the majority, each individual needs to see what works best for them, their practice and their life.

    Social is not something that lives in a vacuum, or a silo, need to keep in mind that all of these interactions will become more pervasive, not less, as time moves on... navigating these murky waters requires judgement and individuality. Be yourself, be authentic, and do what works best for you and is in line with your goals.

  3. Erica U from GR, April 16, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.

    When researching a new OBGYN before I had my son I came across the Twitter page of a female doc who was recommended to me. One of her latest posts was about her crazy day at work where a patient pooped on the table in front of her. The tone of it was so disrespectful I was way turned off. The page was cached so I think she had stopped using Twitter since but obviously I still found it. I can see anyone joking with their friends in their same field about a crazy work day but get a clue about publicizing something like that when you are in the medical field! I can see why their professional society would discourage use of social media in general when they see a few dummys doing something like that and disgracing the profession. It's always the few who ruin it for the majority.

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