ACOG has recently updated its committee opinion regarding digital and social media use by ObGyn professionals. Many of the key points are relevant regardless of specialty. The document arrives during a time of constant reporting surrounding digital and social media and its uses and misuses across all phases of life. To further complicate matters, many state medical boards have their own recommendations and physicians should be aware of guideline requirements by employers and other professional organizations. Furthermore, the committee opinion does point out that there is not a lot of legal precedent when it comes to the use of social media by medical professionals. It’s enough to make one want to avoid usage altogether but that approach can cut one off from valuable medical information, breaking news and connections to colleagues and patients.
There are a few caveats to be mindful of, similar to when using other forms of electronic online communications. If there is a current physician-patient relationship, then HIPAA guidelines prevail. All written communications must be documented and preserved in the electronic medical record (EMR) in a way that is properly protected (e.g., using encrypted sites that are password protected). This approach creates a concrete audit trail. If there is no established physician-patient relationship, then answering specific medical questions should be avoided. This could arise in chat rooms, casual emails, or online support groups. ACOG suggests that because the law is sufficiently vague, an electronic dialogue, now on record, could “be construed as establishing a patient-physician relationship” even if no such relationship ever existed previously.
It is safe to maintain a webpage so long as it carries the warning that the medical information posted on it does not form a physician-patient relationship and the reader should consult with a physician with any health concerns. Remember that the physician who maintains a web page is ultimately responsible for the content and cannot point fingers at the web designer or blogger.
A professional social media profile can substitute or enhance one’s professional web page. It can be designed for professional networking and one can control the security settings on your profile and prevent unwanted postings. The document also discusses the reality of closed professional groups on social media that may be beneficial in connecting and sharing valuable information. However, there should be an understanding that even within closed networks, posts can potentially become public and discretion is advised.
The use of social media in personal life is also discussed in the opinion. The advice is predicated on the fact that there can be wide overlap between our personal and professional lives. While social media can be “an enjoyable way to share life events” and other moment, it is important to remember that everything posted can easily become widely disseminated. ACOG considers this activity to be ‘moderate risk’ if a physician allows large audience viewing and ‘low risk’ if restricted to close family and friends. In addition, rather than ‘friending’ patients, a better option would be to refer patients to the professional site.
Finally, this document does address “Online Physician Ratings.” Physicians can choose to work with online rating companies and encourage patients to post reviews. The ACOG document makes a few points with respect to these online ratings. First, physicians must comply with terms and conditions of any particular online ratings site. Secondly, negative reviews will arise and physicians “should be prepared to handle negative online ratings or reviews.” This means that rather than ignoring ratings, it is best to monitor and report any inaccuracies. The committee opinion refers to the importance of abiding by the ‘Code of Professional Ethics of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (see ‘Learn More – Primary Sources’ below)
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