Should patients talk with their doctors using social media?

As both patients and doctors find themselves increasingly on Twitter and Facebook, more are wondering whether they should be talking to one another using social networking outlets.

This issue has come up before, most recently when the New England Journal of Medicine asked whether doctors should friend their patients on Facebook.

Pediatrician Bryan Vartabedian looks further at the issue, and sees it fraught with potential risk.

He points out that sharing privileged information requires written consent. But what if the patient initiates the conversation? Some attorneys say that can imply consent, but the laws in this area are not yet clear.

Also, every communication between doctor and patient needs to be documented. Dr. Vartabedian notes that “the documentation on most social platforms isn’t detailed enough for other medical professionals or auditors to follow what’s gone on between you and your caregiver [and] let’s not forget that Twitter has a habit of disappearing after a couple of weeks.”

And perhaps most concerning is the privacy issue. When someone shares personal medical information in a public forum, like Twitter or a Facebook page, it has to potential to get indexed by search engines, making it permanent on the web.

There’s tremendous potential for doctors to better use Twitter and Facebook to interact with patients. By guiding patients to reputable sources of medical information, for instance.

But social media isn’t mature enough for doctors to provide personal medical advice to patients. Yet.

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  • Helen


    That just seems like a slippery slope to me. I have the email addresses of several of my doctors, but we use them to coordinate appointments between specialists when playing phone tag just isn’t working. If I need medical advice, I’ll make an appointment or, if it’s needed urgently, make a phone call.

    My doctors are great, but I don’t need to see their vacation photos and they don’t need to see mine.

  • Sushil

    I’ll surely like to use social media with my health care providers for appointments, pre/post op followups and in general anything that help me maintain my health. Like Helen, I have no interest in knowing about personal life of my doctor.

  • Medical Spa MD

    I’ve had wonderful patients but I agree, they don’t need to see me in my swim trunks on vacation.

  • Dyck Dewid

    Social Media to me has a great power to make each of us transparent. This is especially useful from the point of disclosing those of honor and skill, or those who have questionable integrity or motive or competence. After all we are all people who must find and relate to those to whom we can relate and yield our independence (seek help). Trust is important to most of us, and so what we do and what others are saying about us is an important indication of our worthiness.

    Personally, one of my criteria for selecting a physician is how real they are versus how much image I must deal with. And the more real, the more trust they get from me. I could go into this more deeply, but this isn’t the forum. However, I will plug an excellent book about this,
    Kitchen Table Wisdom by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen eloquently telling entertaining actual short stories of ‘really’ communicating between doctor and patient.

    So, social media is ideal for establishing people-to-people and people-to-business (non-private) relationships. Beyond this and beyond social aspects take it off-line except for giving useful and honest public feedback.

  • Drew Griffin

    Interesting discussion topic to say the least. Using Social Media to discuss health topics with their Doctors or other Health Care professionals is debatable. I would submit the concerns of legality and privacy would be foremost.

    What if the ‘communication’ in this forum was used to educate in terms of best practices and current Standards of Care. For example, there is disparity in education of Diabetics. Could we use this Social Media space to educate patients…as a whole, about the disease and topics related to treatment of diabetes?

  • Dyck Dewid

    It seems to me there is a lot of room in subject matter for openness in communicating publicly that would not threaten the concerns being brought up.

    As I understand it, those issues w patients are: telling of problems or symptoms, asking directions or for consultation, talking about or possible alluding to specific personal health issues and fishing for advice. And those issues w doctors are: giving opinions or advice about what could be a specific patient problem. Obviously these issues can be diffused with qualifiers such as, “no treatment discussions are entertained” and that “no personal advice is intended” in any dialogue, etc..

    But, there is much to discuss otherwise. For example, how do you feel about vitamin therapy? What is your normal practice in dealing with prescribing drugs versus life-style change? Are you active in surgical procedures? Can you discuss how you engage with a patient to make treatment decisions such Hormone Replacement Therapy or Mammograms or various cancer testing procedures? Do you discuss openly when Insurance is requiring something versus what you feel is necessary or unnecessary?

    On a personal level, social media, if used by the physician would yield info about personal connections, activities, social fitness or connectedness, charity or community involvement, hobbies, interests, professional energy, in other words, is this a real person?

    What is the doctor’s goal? To have an image? To be important? Or to demonstrate authentic humanness, dedication, competence, judgment, caring, even fallibility? As a patient I want to know this.

    In my opinion it is necessary to continually demonstrate the importance of the patient to an increasingly skeptical world.

    Recommended reading: How Doctors Think
    by Groopman, MD

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