Doctors are being cautioned by hospitals they work with to avoid interacting with patients on social media, and that they reject any overtures by patients to interact on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Stanford University School of Medicine student Matt Goldstein, who graduates in June and has accepted a position at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, says the hospital specifically stated in a letter to him that it would like him to refrain from using social media with patients. Goldstein also says the letter he got told him he should change his privacy settings on Facebook, if he used it at all, to optimize privacy.
"The letter said the patient may try to 'friend' you, but we suggest you don't accept," said Goldstein. The letter also suggested he "review photos" he might have posted online anywhere in the interests of establishing an online identity as a medical professional.
Goldstein, whose research has focused on lymphoma and leukemia, admits he's disappointed that his social-media interactions with patients are to be curtailed, but he does understand that the physician/patient relationship is sensitive. Stanford also expressed the need to show caution about social networking as a medical professional, he said. And he acknowledges there are probably legal fine points to understand.
But he added he still wishes there were an established way to communicate online with patients confidentially. He notes he has been using a membership-based service called Doximity that lets physicians exchange commentary in a private online forum. More than 50,000 physicians are using it, he says, and it gives them a way to share thoughts about patient cases -- not naming the patients -- and get feedback from their medical peers.
Others with familiarity about the medical profession also say it's commonplace to discourage physicians from interacting with patients in social media.
David Sheidlower, chief information security officer at Health Quest, the healthcare group with hospitals and other facilities in counties outside New York City, says the medical profession is struggling with the question.
One method to facilitate online contact between physician and patient, though, has been to set up Internet-based portals specifically for this purpose, and Health Quest is engaged in an early use of one to communicate with outpatients about health matters. He notes Kaiser Permanente in California is also known to maintain a patient portal.
"I think eventually we'll be using social networks," says Sheidlower. But he adds that in general, "nobody's sure how to do it."
Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security.