Facebook friend issues between doctor and patient

My friend and colleague Katherine Chretien has a provocative op-ed in USA Today entitled, “A doctor’s request: Please don’t ‘friend’ me,” which asks the question whether doctors and patients should interact in social networking sites such as Facebook.

Social networking has huge potential in health care regarding the sharing of information and ideas, and could possibly even enhance communication between doctors and patients. However, as Dr. Chretien points out, many physicians have steered clear of social networking sites, and those who do, “actively dread having a patient add them as a friend.”

The main problems with social networking and patient-physician interactions boils down to confidentiality, security and boundaries.

Confidentiality and security are less murky issues to deal with, and is applicable to all online communications between doctors and patients. First, there has to be privacy. If a patient wants to post their entire medical history to the world, they have every right to do this, but doctors have to ethically and legally maintain a patient’s privacy. This should not be too difficult, but could get tricky in a social networking world.

If a patient posts “Not feeling well today,” a reply from their physician “don’t forget to take your meds,” would likely be a violation of privacy and confidentiality. In addition, all online communication must be secure. Regular email does not even meet that requirement.

In fact, unlike email, both parties need to be logged in to Facebook to send and receive messages, making Facebook a better choice for direct communication between doctors and patient then regular email. Part of security also means encryption. According to Facebook they “always posts to a secure page when users are logging in and employs industry standard encryption.”

The bigger problem has to do with boundaries. The doctor and patient relationship is unique in that is should be close and personal, but if too close, the doctor’s objectivity could be compromised. This is why it is considered unwise (and sometimes unethical) for physicians to treat their relatives. According to Dr. Chretien, “the thought of opening up our personal pages filled with family photos, off-the-cuff remarks and potentially, relationship status and political and/or religious views to our patients gives us the heebie-jeebies.”

However, is having family photos online any different than having family photos in one’s office? Does an off the cuff remark revealing a physician’s political slant any different in the office than on the web? Physicians are often known to personalize their office space with items of personal importance and significance. Family photos, an artifact from a vacation, a golfing trophy, a treasured gift from a patient, I believe this is a good thing. It humanizes physicians and hopefully assists patients in making connections with us.

The two problems with Facebook are controlling one’s own privacy and the use of the word “friend.” Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommates and fellow computer science students. In other words, it was invented by kids. The term used to link one another is “friend.” However, this is not “friend” the noun which we are all familiar with, but rather “friend” the verb. Though “friend” the verb can theoretically used to mean “befriend,” in conjunction with Facebook it is the mechanism by which one connects with another individual online.

The confusion is not unique to the doctor-patient relationship. I am sure many young adults wonder what to do when a parent “friends” them. If instead of “friend”, Zuckerberg and colleagues had used the word “connect’, we would probably be less concerned about boundary issues. Is it wrong for a physician to “connect” with patients online?

The issue of controlling one’s own privacy is likely what truly concerns many physicians when considering using social networking platforms like Facebook with patients. After all, the physician who personalizes his or her office space has carefully decided what he or she wants patients to know about them. Even if a physician is careful in posting information on Facebook knowing that patient-”friends” might see, other non-patient “friends” can tag the physician in a compromising photo or leave an inappropriate reply that could be easily viewed by the patient. This is obviously a barrier, but this barrier is easily overcome.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to have two separate Facebook accounts: a professional/patient account and a private/personal account. A variant of this would be setting up a “Fan” page. Finally, any Facebook user should be familiar with the privacy settings on Facebook. These can be customized. For example, you might create a groups called “patients”, “relatives” and “close personal friends”; assigning different permissions to each of these groups.

As the op-ed points out, there are currently no national guidelines for social media use by physicians and, as mentioned above, confidentiality and boundary issues are difficult and controlling one’s own privacy may not be easy for many physicians. However, most of the barriers for using social networking between doctors and patients can be overcome. Given that, and the potential uses and benefits social networking can provide, I would somewhat disagree with my friend (correct usage of the noun) that physicians shouldn’t be “friends” on Facebook with patients.

However, if they do, they should proceed with extreme caution.

Matthew Mintz is an internal medicine physician and blogs at Dr. Mintz’ Blog.

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