Google+: Physicians can optimize their online footprint

Google+ has launched in beta stages and social networking for physicians has the potential for significant evolution. The challenge for physicians of balancing personal and professional online is not easy to solve. The dual citizenship approach provides recommendations for physicians to manage their profiles online. It is suggested that separate personal and professional profiles are created, with the hope that the latter will rank higher in searches. They also recommend undertaking “electronic self-audit” to identify potential online conflicts.

An ex-Google employee, Paul Adams, who now works at Facebook pointed to a bigger problem: “the social networks we’re creating online don’t match the social networks we already have offline.” The dual citizenship approach may exacerbate this as it oversimplifies a physician’s relationships, which are often multiple and more complex then simply personal versus professional. The approach may also appear fragmented and potential patients, colleagues and friends may be confused. Further, the duality of profiles that results from dual citizenship are beyond the control of the physician, with regard to search engine ranking.

Rather than implementing dual citizenship, we suggest an alternative approach where access to various areas of a profile would depend on offline relationships – i.e. relationship governed access. Therefore, a physician should grant access to a profile based on the appropriateness of offline relationships such as: friends, family, colleagues, students, teachers, business partners … and patients. A single profile with relationship governed access would make having multiple profiles unnecessary and outdated.

Google+ although not perfect, has brought physicians a step forward towards finding an appropriate way to translate offline into online relationships. It allows a physician to create a single public profile and control exactly what information is shown to the casual and search engines. This could include a photo, job, hospital location, specialty etc. but not necessarily all of these. It also enables “friends” (profile contacts) to be categorized “circles” which can represent different types of relationships. These “circles” can function as isolated units and the user can control how content is shared within these groups. We believe this unified profile approach will allow a single profile base that prevents casual and unwanted access to a physician’s full profile, whilst still allowing patients to view appropriate information or links.

Given the early stages of the site, it remains far too premature to facilitate a way in which patients could be added to “circles.” Current guidelines for physicians at a global level advise not to add patients to a social network.  Despite this, the Google+ privacy settings have innovated the customization of a public profile.

In summary, Google+ provides a way to translate offline relationships into a single online profile. It also gives more control and is a step forward that renders the “dual citizenship” approach unnecessary by enabling relationship governed access.

Sebastian Mafeld and Parminder Ghura are physicians in the United Kingdom, and co-owners of Dr. Digital iD.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting article, the ‘circles’ that you mention would be a useful addition in managing privacy, particularly if you could use a separate ‘patient’ setting, though I personally would still be hesitant to add a patient to my list of ‘friends’.
    I wonder if google is doing this now, can facebook really be that far behind in instituting something similar?

    • dr digitaliD

      Great comment. I don’t know what facebook’s plans are regarding instituting something similar. Although, adding a concept similar to ‘circles’ could mean facebook users would have to re-organize their entire ‘friends’ list – a task I doubt many would enjoy. In doing so, facebook users may alienate existing ‘friends’ as they suddenly find they have less access to profiles. At least with Google +, clear boundaries are established from the beginning.

  • Sarah Kohl

    Thanks for bringing to light the difficulty of having a social media footprint, a public life as a physician, and a private life as a family member.  I practice in a small community, so privacy is minimal but respect for  each other’s space is maximal. This structure appears remarkably similar to the posts I see about social media.  I have struggled with facebook’s settings: how to keep in touch with nieces and nephews but not have their posts appear on my business page.  Google+ intuitive separation into circles does allow more separation of my divided life. I feel I can post to the intended audience whether it be my clients or my family.  I am curious as to how Google  will roll out commercial/business profiles.  How do others manage their ‘divided’ lives?

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