How Can Physicians Build an Online Presence – Ethically?

How Can Physicians Build an Online Presence – Ethically?

The relationship between digital media and professionalism is “complicated.” Digital media has invaded the medical cocoon, as nearly 8 out of 10 Americans now search for health information online. But there has to be an ethical code of conduct with this intersection of

Social media and the Internet have revolutionised the healthcare industry. Web-based platforms such as blogs, physician-review websites, wikis, media sharing sites, Twitter and Facebook have transformed the way we communicate as a society. For physicians, this may be a most challenging time as it has brought both opportunities and challenges to their professionalism.

Social media has set its roots and is here to stay. It has changed our way of interacting with others and by direct consequence, our relationships. It’s believed that physicians are lifelong learners, and they constantly evolve with developments in new therapies, treatment options, diagnostic tools and new technology. Therefore, it is imperative for them to embrace new and better means of communication when it leads to more efficient patient care. But while dealing with this new mode of communication, a word of caution for physicians would be to adhere to the ethical roots of their profession: humanism, integrity, ethics, professionalism and trust.

The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that social networking can enhance camaraderie among healthcare professionals provide physicians with the opportunity to have a professional presence online as well as present an unbeatable opportunity to “widely disseminate public health messages.” Social networking can improve marketing, further education in a clinical interest and enhance communication between a health professional and his/her patients. But while embracing social media, physicians must keep in mind maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of patient information. While using technology and discovering better ways to build up a physician-patient relationship, physicians should be mindful that this must not be at the cost of their professional commitments.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) have stated their recommendations for online medical professionalism. To expand practice on this new horizon, ethically and responsibly, physicians must always keep in mind the following:

Patient privacy should be the top priority
While using any online platform, physicians should be mindful of standards for patient privacy and confidentiality, which must be maintained in all environments. They should adopt a conservative approach for disclosing personal information about any patient, as online channels are public and can be accessed by anyone. Particularly when discussing a specific case, be sure that you do not put any identifiable patient information, and tweak your privacy settings to allow such interactions to be visible only to other medical professionals of your choice.

Take the first step to protect your online reputation and request your Online Reputation Assessment.

Routinely monitor your online presence
Your practice is the brand you have built on for years and years. In this era of social networking sites, it’s mandatory for physicians to routinely monitor their own Internet presence to know what is being written about their practice. Regularly ensure that the content written on your own sites, physician rating websites and comments or discussions on online platforms is in compliance with the ethical code of conduct.

Ensure accuracy of information
As a physician, it’s your responsibility to provide factual and concise information, declare any conflicts of interest and adopt a sober tone when discussing professional matters. Your patients and other people following you on the social sites will refer to what you have written, will assume that you have provided medically correct information and may act upon it or make decisions on its basis.

Maintain professional distance with patients
While interacting with patients on the Internet, physicians must be watchful to maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship in accordance with professional ethical guidelines, just as they would in any other context. Professional distance and privacy are appropriate for both physician and patient. To have clear personal and professional boundaries, physicians should consider developing professional profiles with an explicit purpose of networking and reaching out to patients. Physicians should maintain strict privacy settings on personal accounts and must not “friend” or contact patients through personal social media.

Emerging technology, Internet and social media platforms will continue to change the landscape of social networking. The use of physician-review websites by patients and physicians is increasing at a rapid pace and will continue to evolve over time. These channels can be positive drivers of professional growth only when they are used in the right way, i.e. ethically and responsibly. Maintaining trust in this noble profession of providing healthcare to all requires that physicians consistently apply ethical principles for preserving the relationship, confidentiality, respect and privacy while using the Internet and social platforms.

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