Monday, 2 April 2012

How Medical Doctors and Students Should Use Social Media: a Review to Propose some Practical Recommendations

Social Media (SM) has grown exponentially and in the last few years there has been an increasing use amongst medical doctors and students. At the same time there is intense debate about the complexities of ensuring medical professionalism in the digital age and especially on using open and massive online services.

We carried out a review of the main SM guidelines with the following objectives (today it has been accepted as a full paper in the European Medical Informatics Conference (MIE) 2012 that will take place in Pisa next August):
  1. To gather the main recommendations on using Social Media platforms and websites by medical doctors and students, which are proposed by several international organizations, institutions and universities and
  2. To propose a set of practical recommendations, based on the comparison of the statements and items of the guidelines, in order to find agreements and differences among them and select the most common and practical items stated. 

Based on the review of the different guidelines and documents analyzed, ten points of general practices when using social networking websites are proposed as a first approach:

1. The use of Social Media for professional purposes opens new ways to communicate with patients, general public and colleagues but used as a professional tool it is necessary to consider different aspects to guarantee their safer, useful, legal and ethical utilization.
2. Use conservative privacy settings in social media sites and platforms although be aware that not all information can be protected on the Web and how easily accessible it is.
3. Maintain standards of patient privacy and confidentiality and be sure that any patient cannot be identified by the combination or sum of information posted online. Likewise, respect information and content copyrights.
4. Remember that what is online is probably long-lasting so be careful about what you say and how you say it.
5. It is not recommendable to give any kind of medical advice in social networks. When using Social Media platforms for services such as general health information or education, explain clearly the objectives, features of usage and limitations. Also, remember to include in Electronic Health Records (EHR) any kind of interaction with your patients using SM.
6. Medical doctors shouldn’t be friends with everyone in Social Media and in general it is prudent not to become an electronic friend of a current or former patient (consider separate clearly personal and professional content online).
7. Follow the guidelines of your health organization or company on using social media and if they are not established yet, seriously suggest its implementation as soon as possible, taking into account that if it is the case, they should be considered as one more service among those offered by your organization.
8. Clarify when you are speaking on behalf of your company or institution, if it is not the case, clearly state that you are making personal remarks.
9. If you are identified as a medical doctor, any statement must especially reflect good standards of conduct and professional behavior.
10. Any form of inappropriate online behavior can potentially harm doctor-patient or colleague relationships, be careful with comments made about colleagues and even health departments. Maintain good and respectful manners.

There are many questions that remain under discussion, such as how to manage the digital identity, where the limits between personal and professional presence online are or how to give answers to open ethical and legal concerns related to potential doctor-patient relationships established online. The paper will be soon published in the Proceedings of MIE. Original translation in Spanish in Web Mèdica Acreditada website

A comprehensive list of the Medical Social Media guidelines reviewed is displayed:

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