Hospitals that ban physicians from social media are long term losers

I’ve heard that a few academic medical centers, the identities which I will keep anonymous, are advising incoming medical residents to stay off social media.  Meaning, they have to close their blogs, and shutter their Twitter or Facebook accounts.

As hospitals and doctors try to best use social media, and prevent damage from its improper use, taking the extreme measure of forbidding doctors in training from utilizing social is heavy handed, short-sighted, and, in the long run, will set doctors back in the increasingly influential online space.

I can understand that, from a hospital’s standpoint, the damage that a single person can bring to an institution is considerable.  Consider the recent episode where a Rhode Island physician’s Facebook posting brought the hospital national infamy.

And in JAMA, there has been a study documenting that a small minority, 3%, of physician Tweets were inappropriate, with another paper showing a larger number of medical students engaging social media unprofessionally.

But utilizing social media properly gives physicians a powerful voice, and can help them build a positive, influential online persona.  When these residents graduate, patients will be looking for them online.  Physicians need to control their own digital footprint, rather than a third-party or a for-profit entity.

And prominent physicians in the social space, like Bryan Vartabedian, Wendy Sue Swanson, and Vineet Arora, give their respective institutions a physician-branded credibility that’s essential for trustworthiness online.

Casting social media in a negative light will only stunt physician adoption of blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.  While hospitals probably see this as an negligible trade-off in order to protect their reputations, it’s outrageously selfish, and will make doctors even more tentative online.  This puts them at a disadvantage at a time when patients expect more of their health care to involve the web, and, perhaps in the future, social media.

Instead of an outright ban, academic institutions need to bring their culture into the 21st century, develop reasonable social media policies, and educate their staff.   It’s sad that social media is seen as a threat, while the considerable benefits of proper physician social media use can bring are ignored.

I’m often asked by hospital administrators, “How can my hospital be more visible in the social media space?” I explain that doctors need to lead the effort, not PR or marketing.  Support doctors 110% in your social media efforts, and everyone will reap the rewards that will bring.

It’s unfortunate that some are taking the opposite tack. Banning physician involvement strikes me as poor strategy which will set these institutions back in the long run.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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  • Ashley

    Hi Kevin (or Dr. Pho),

    I completely agree that physicians (or other healthcare professionals) should be the ones leading/carrying a hospital social media team, as social media accounts affiliated with an organization should reflect an understanding of its community and the issues. Who better than doctors?

    The concerns would be, I guess, that doctors don’t necessarily have the communications training to properly convey the organization’s key messages and may not have a sense of branding and what not. I think these are more likely issues than a doctor saying/doing inappropriate things.

    Also, these days the trend is doctors who are accessible to the public and have a good bedside manner. Social media is a great opportunity to convey that.


  • Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe

    Having consulted and spoken to several “such” hospitals that ban social media it’s important to note that those bans are in most cases in reference to PERSONAL use of social media.

    Lots of residents use facebook, twitter, and blogs for personal use to keep in touch with friends, relatives, topics of interest without any understanding of the impact it could have on their training and employment.

    Indeed, many residents accounts are immensely idiotic. Some post drunken photos, make rude and vulgar comments, post half-naked pictures, “like” highly inappropriate pages…

    I disagree with banning. But most hospital’s resident recruiters don’t do their due diligence. It’s more “convenient” for them to simply ban personal social media rather than monitor or spend considerable amount of time to check each and every account. There is a considerable lack of education on what social media is and what it can do. There is NO education on proper use of social media.

    This disussion would be better titled: Hospitals Ban use of inappropriate unprofessional use of social media.

  • Mark Soberman, MD MBA

    Well stated. Hospital IT policies, in general, seem rather backward to me. While privacy and protecting bandwith are important, recognition of the value of social media and how intertwined it is with today’s culture is even more so.

  • The Nerdy Nurse

    If you trust a doctor to make decisions about your healthcare and your life, then why on earth wouldn’t you trust them to make appropriate decisions in terms of social media.
    The same rules apply in social media that apply in the healthcare setting: Maintain HIPAA, be professional, and so on.
    I agree with Kevin MD completely on this issue!
    Encouraging/forcing Doctors to stay off twitter will only stunt the growth of this very powerful medium.
    As healthcare providers we have the ability to help improve our patients lives, and the only setting is just another avenue in which to explore to do that.

    Shame on any hospital that has their screws wound so tight they do not see the bigger picture. Get a social media policy. Get with the times. And Get your doctors on twitter!

  • Andrew

    Great post. I’m interested in one area that wasn’t specifically addressed – I know several MDs that tell me they have no time for social media themselves, but they recognize its growing importance. I just don’t see how our overworked doctors can be expected to add another task to their already busy schedules. I think all doctors should be given the option to have a 3rd party handle their social media communications. After all, we don’t expect doctors to man the phones all day…

  • Penny

    It’s hard to imagine your doctor sitting there on Facebook or tweeting his life away. Patients used to think their doctors had very little time so it was easy then to understand if their doctors weren’t knowledgeable,

    And it’s true that once a patient discovers pictures of his doctor in a drunken state that could ruin his business.
    Politicians have gotten themselves in really hot water over silly comments made on Facebook or Twitter. If a doctor is going to hang around there and is recognized by some of his patients, he could very well do the same. All it takes is one slip, and everyone posting to those will make it at some point. It’s just that in the case of Facebook, it’s tracked and held forever.

  • Matt

    Interested in your opinion – is a social media presence appropriate for a psychiatrist starting out a solo private practice? My wife is about to start one. (I am a local marketer by day.)

    I tend to side with her on this – that it is inappropriate for her to establish a social media presence beyond claiming Place Pages or starting a blog. Twitter and Facebook – anything truly “social” requiring interaction from patients, feels very inappropriate and at risk of breaching patient trust. Very few if any of her patients are interested in sharing their doctor-patient relationship publicly. It is also prudent in the psychiatry profession to draw a strict line in the sand professional vs personal.

    Interested in other opinions though, and if you think she should engage on social platforms, which one(s)? Thanks!

  • K8

    I start medical school tomorrow, and it was quite a decision whether or not I was going to remain anonymous or not through my blog. I looked at my school’s policy, and although they approve of social media as long as HIPAA is not violated and there is adequate warning that my opinion is not to be affiliated with my medical school, I am hesitant. I talked to some other medical student bloggers, to see if they have had any fallout with their non-anonymity, and they have not. 

    I’m still nervous though; my entire career is on the line. And while I love commenting and discussing topics online, there is the possibility, in the back of my mind, that I am potentially jeopardizing my career. =( It’s an unsettling thought to say the least, but I am very much on your side KevinMD. I think social media should be embraced, not ostracized. 

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