Being Social On Professional Media

The Doctor And His Patient, Jan Steen 1665, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


It seems 2011 is the year of “Beware The Physician On Social Media”. There’s a lot of stuff flying around. Doctor Tweeps have made degrading jokes about their patients and been outed. A comprehensive survey of Physicians on Twitter demonstrated that 3% of Tweets were unprofessional, either profane or identifying patients. Both Australian/New Zealand and UK medical associations have felt the urge to publish guidelines on Social Media. And then there is the question that physicians who never use Social media always ask: ‘Isn’t it all just ‘NOISE’?’

It boils down to HOW to use  Social Media professionally, and WHY it should be used at all.

First the ‘HOW’.

Let’s look at those medical association guidelines and lump their recommendations together. There are 3 categories.

Hippocrates, public domain, Wiki Commons

The first relates to doctors. Breaking patient confidentiality and making personal derogatory remarks. We may never have actually sworn on the Hippocratic oath which, in part, goes ‘All that may come to my knowledge on the exercise of my profession or in the daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal’. But we know exactly what it means to maintain confidence. Talk to the patient, or parent if a child, or an attending physician, or if legally obliged. No-one else. Period. It’s not hard.

The second can affect anyone. These are concepts of online image and defamatory remarks and security, relevant to all who use the Internet. The stuff you post is there forever, right?

And the third is the most difficult: Can I be your friend? Well, Twitter and Blogs are fine, it’s the market place, no invitations, people come and go depending on what they want to see and hear. It’s real life. But where there is a request to be invited, that’s when Media should be split into Social v Professional. For SM, no former or current patients. For PM, it’s set up like a business or education site, no personal stuff, no problems, you’re all invited. Easy.

Now the ‘WHY’. Why should physicians engage in Professional Media? Katherine Chretien @MotherinMed and her co-authors say it all: Twitter can be a useful way of spreading good health information. I agree. Good information about vaccinations. About government health policy. About drugs and operations. About diet. There is so much awfully biased and even dangerous anecdote about health on the internet that it is the responsibility of physicians to get involved. The British Medical Association guidelines don’t mention anything good about professional media. Neither do our guidelines in Australasia and I’m surprised because they were published by Doctors in Training.

Does this mean a bit of ‘NOISE’ among all the serious stuff. Sure. In my consulting room, with real, not virtual, people, there is ‘NOISE’. I talk to people about their job and about language and the old days and religion and Aussie politics and Masterchef and music and stuff. It’s called being social. I get to understand the person who is ill, not just the illness that the person has. And it works the other way. They  have the opportunity to assess what I’m like, as a human being. And they can do that in the consulting room, and by the professional media that I post. That’s where I would differ from the UK guidelines which warn doctors not to blur the boundary between their private and professional lives. If I do the ‘HOW’ properly, for the right ‘WHY’, then a bit of ‘NOISE’ is OK.

There you are – Being Social on Professional Media – It’s Not Rocket Science

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