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Social Media Activity Investigations By State Medical Boards

 

by Robert A. Welch, Jr.

Social media is not only a way to keep in touch with your friends and family, but also it can be an effective tool to disseminate critical health messages to your patient population and the general public. With the prevalence of services such as Twitter, health providers are able to access nearly live updates of scholarly journals, peer reviewed articles, and even clinical opinions, bulletins and recommendations in their respective practices. Health professionals should keep themselves educated on the risks and rewards for their professional practice as they become more digitally connected.

It is important to be cautious but connected. Licensed health professionals are now highly accessible to their patient via text, e-mail, Blogs, websites, social media, and other electronic medium. Some advantages among many are (1) that the appearance of accessibility to patients is reassuring; (2) easy access to work-related materials and educational materials; (3) quick communication among team members to coordinate care; and (4) the ability to reach a larger audience in multiple ways. The disadvantage is that access to health professionals has created many new responsibilities for health professionals as they go online, not only in their professional practice but in their private lives.

It is true that there is no obligation to participate in social media at all, however, it is nearly impossible to avoid all personal or professional presence on all social media networks. With that in mind, ACOG Today published a Social Media Guide with the intention of instructing physicians on their important rules for using social media. The concepts introduced in the ACOG publication are generally applicable to any licensed health professional. (Social Media Guide: How to connect with patients and spread women’s health messages; ACOG Today, p. 6, November 2012). Some of the most important rules include:

“Don’t”s
1. Don’t discuss patients online, even in general terms
2. Don’t give medical advice
3. Don’t post photos of patients
4. Don’t post anything you don’t want the entire world to read.
5. Don’t “friend” your patients on Facebook.
6. Don’t spend too much time directly promoting your practice.

“Do”s
1. Always maintain your professionalism
2. Be careful with humor and political opinions
3. Speak in lay terms patients and consumers will understand
4. Ask your employer and/or hospital if it has social media guidelines you must follow
5. Consider creating a social media policy for your practice
6. Ask your professional liability carrier if it has social media coverage or guidelines.

Failure by a licensed health care professional to adequately protect their online activities may subject them to professional licensure investigation by the State Licensing Board. The activity may also have medical legal implications.

In a survey of state medical boards conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the majority had received reports of online professionalism violations. See footnote at 7. The violations were generally categorized as professional boundaries issues or inappropriate medical practice such as prescribing without an established clinical relationship. Id. In response to the alleged online violations, 71% of state boards held disciplinary proceedings and 40% issued formal warnings. [1]

The Annals of Internal Medicine recently performed a survey among state medical boards in the United States about the likelihood of investigations for violations of online professionalism using 10 hypothetical vignettes. The notable results were reported as follows:

  • Four online vignettes demonstrated high consensus: citing misleading information about clinical outcomes (81%; 39/48), using patient images without consent (79%; 38/48), misrepresenting credentials (77%; 37/48), and inappropriately contacting patients (77%; 37/48).
  • Three demonstrated moderate consensus for investigation: depicting alcohol intoxication (73%; 35/48), violating patient confidentiality (65%; 31/48), and using discriminatory speech (60%; 29/48).
  • Three demonstrated low consensus: using derogatory speech toward patients (46%; 22/48), showing alcohol use without intoxication (40%; 19/48), and providing clinical narratives without violation of confidentiality (16%; 7/48).

Licensed health professionals should have a heightened awareness of their specific online behaviors that may subject them to investigation.

If you have received notice of investigation of your professional license or you have been disciplined and wish to appeal you should contact Chapman Law Group immediately. Our experienced Health Care Law Attorneys will fight to protect your professional license and your professional reputation.


1 Online Professionalism Investigations by State Medical Boards: First, Do No Harm, Ann Intern Med. 2013, 158(2)124-130