Physician social networks and liability risk

I recently wrote about the hidden dangers of physician social networks, and how private posts can potentially become public at a later date.

With the recent controversy surrounding former Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel and Journalist in mind, I commented that,

passionate, controversial debate is frequent on Sermo, along with discussion of patient cases. Part of what makes the site so provocative and insightful is the fact that the conversations are shielded from the public.But there’s no guarantee that will always be the case, as “perhaps a physician-turned-hospital administrator who went looking for dirt on a trouble-making internist, [or] a malpractice attorney who used his brother-in-law’s log-on ID to troll for cases,” are both plausible scenarios.

Bryan Vartabedian has a more positive take.  He likens physician social networks to water cooler talk, no different from doctor lounges of days past.  Physicians there often discussed patient issues informally, and engaged in provocative conversation on various health issues.

It’s not often that a doctor can get sued over this:

The medical malpractice attorneys I’ve consulted on the matter have suggested that a plaintiff must prove that the physician has a duty to the patient in question.  And that duty only comes through the establishment of a relationship.  Or, in other words, it must be shown that the doctor is responsible and obligated for the patient’s care.  And in the case of the curbside consult there is no duty on the part of the doctor interrupted during his coffee break.

Dr. Vartabedian argues that the malpractice risk of physician social networks is no different, and thus, doctors should be less concerned about potential liability.

There is one difference, however.  Every conversation on a social network is recorded electronically, and can potentially surface in the future.  Taken out of context, it can present the doctor in an unflattering light.  No such record exists from a physician lounge conversation.

I would still advise physicians to be careful about what they say behind closed virtual doors.  Be aware that after you hit the enter key, whatever typed is singed into cyberspace forever.

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

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