Rhode Island Issues Social Media Guidelines for Doctors

Given the heavily regulated nature of the medical profession, it’s no surprise that doctors have been a bit reluctant to embrace social media, considering the risk of privacy breaches and new areas of liability. But doctors also recognize its potential as a tool for communicating with patients and each other. Now the profession’s governing bodies are trying to make it easier to adopt social media by issuing guidelines that remove at least some of the uncertainty surrounding it.

In the latest development, Rhode Island’s Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline has issued guidelines for medical professionals using social media, noting the risks associated with social media but also its ability to “disseminate information and forge meaningful professional relationships.”

In addition to obvious points like protecting the privacy of their patients, the RI medical board recommended that doctors avoid giving medical advice online and emphasized that “even seemingly innocuous online interactions with patients and former patients may violate the boundaries of a proper physician-patient relationship.”

Thus doctors shouldn’t use their professional position to develop personal relationships online or in person, and are discouraged from interacting with patients online on “personal” social networks like Facebook. If the patient initiates the interaction, they should exercise great discretion in accepting online friend requests and any subsequent interactions with these connections. Doctors should use separate, non-work email addresses for their own personal social network accounts.

The RI board notes that doctor-patient relationships may begin without personal encounters, meaning social media is one channel for opening the relationship; however, it also warns doctors to be aware that they may not be able to verify the identity of the person they’re corresponding with, or vice versa.

One of the biggest areas of concern addressed in the guidelines is the need to maintain a professional demeanor online. Here the guidelines noted examples where physicians posted statements on social media that used disrespectful language regarding, among other things, difficult patients and official clinical recommendations from governing bodies.

Finally the RI board stated that it, and other state medical boards, “have the authority to discipline physicians for unprofessional behavior relating to the inappropriate use of social networking media,” including Inappropriate communication with patients online use of the Internet for unprofessional behavior; online misrepresentation of credentials; online violations of patient confidentiality; failure to reveal conflicts of interest online; online derogatory remarks regarding a patient; online depiction of intoxication; and discriminatory language or practices online.

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