PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island Hospital emergency physician Dr. Megan Ranney doesn’t just use Twitter to share research and network with other doctors — she also has fun with it, including a recent tweet of a New Yorker cover mocking the fumbled rollout of the federal health care exchange, which pictured President Obama with a 1980s-era Apple IIe and a floppy disk.
But she’s well aware of social media’s pitfalls. She thinks twice about posts on politically charged issues and avoids giving out individual medical advice.
“I do think you have to use your professional judgment,” she said.
Doctors across the U.S., who now find themselves online as much as in the exam room, are getting guidance from state and national medical associations and hospitals. The Rhode Island Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline adopted guidelines in September to help physicians stay within the boundaries of what it calls appropriate social media use.
The guidelines say physicians are responsible personally and professionally for any content they post and that patient privacy must be protected. They discourage doctors from interacting with current or past patients on sites like Facebook, and recommend maintaining separate personal and professional social media accounts. They also say doctors shouldn’t post medical information that’s “ambiguous” or could be taken out of context.
Their adoption comes more than two years after an emergency room doctor then at Westerly Hospital was reprimanded after she posted details about patients that inadvertently allowed one of them to be recognized, according to a consent order signed by her and the state health department. She deleted her Facebook account and resigned from the hospital.
Dr. James McDonald, head of the licensure board, said many of the guidelines come down to common sense.
“It’s a growing area of concern for the medical board because of its prevalence in our culture,” he said. “We wanted to make sure physicians knew what the board’s expectations are.”
He said he could not comment on whether any social media-related cases are pending before the board.
Many hospitals and health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, have developed social media policies. The guidelines in Rhode Island are based on guidance from the Federation of State Medical Boards.
The state board and the federation cite the same examples of conduct that could “undermine a proper physician-patient relationship and the public trust.” Among them: A doctor lashed out at a patient who landed in the ER multiple times after failing to monitor her sugar levels, calling her “lazy” and “ignorant” in a blog post. Another physician frequently posted pictures of himself on Facebook partying and intoxicated.
Dr. Kevin Pho, an internal medicine doctor in New Hampshire and author of a book for physicians called “Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation,” said every medical institution should have social media guidelines that spell out what not to do. But he regrets that social media is often framed only as a threat.
“I think that’s really a shame because social media is tremendously powerful to connect with patients,” said Pho, who has more than 84,000 followers on Twitter, where his handle is @KevinMD.
Ranney, the Rhode Island Hospital doctor who also teaches at Brown Medical School, has a similar view.
“I think it’s in the online space that we can engage patients,” she said, “to improve knowledge, change misconceptions and hopefully increase engagement in health care.”