Friday, December 27th, 2013

On October 18, 2013, over a dozen vasectomy operations were broadcast live around the world for World Vasectomy Day  via SBS in Australia, CBC in Canada, DR in Denmark and VPRO in The Netherlands.

The events created a social media firestorm and heralded a completely new era of medical communication.  They also marked a line in the sand - by broadcasting in social media, doctors, nurses and associated medical practitioners expose themselves to possibly greater risk than any other group, because their profession demands the highest standard of conduct.

An Australian nurse used a fake account to set up a Facebook page under a pseudonym attacking a colleague whom she considered to be lazy and incompetent. The nurse sent a legal letter both to her colleague and the hospital she worked for, which was referenced on the social network. The offender was subsequently sacked but not before creating considerable damage to her colleague’s reputation. The case is ongoing.

This and many other cases mean that hospitals now include compliance with a Social Media Policy in their employee contracts.  But that’s not the worst of it.

Social media and search engines are also awash with people providing misleading medical information. This includes everyone from well-meaning Facebook friends to the manipulations of multilevel marketers, who promote the “proven health benefits" of everything from the acai berry to ganoderma.

What can a medical professional do to counter all this rubbish?  Social media coach Leila Henderson believes "you simply cannot stop patients consulting Dr Google, but wouldn’t it be better if the information presented was evidence based, useful, and actionable?"

Social media can be used in different ways by medical professionals, each imposing different risks and restrictions:

Doctor-to-public:  relatively common as a means of marketing a medical practice or directly communicating issues surrounding a practice or community, this tends to be website-based or included in a Facebook page that does not allow public posts.

Doctor-to-patient: rare due to concerns about privacy and liability, as well as the difficulty in documenting interactions. While patients would love to embrace this type of interaction, they forget or are unaware of the restrictions under which doctors must operate.

Doctor-to-doctor:  doctors may set up “private groups” but these would used only to share general information.  Discussion of patient information in any public network is obviously out of bounds.

So, on the upside, medical practitioners can use social media to:

  • positively influence the health debate
  • positively influence the health of patients
  • educate themselves on misinformation

But on the downside, any medical professional who participates online has to beware of three major pitfalls:

  • Potential for accusations of unethical behaviour
  • Potential to infringe professional doctor-patient divide
  • Potential to infringe colleague-to-colleague privacy

Ms Henderson says that while the Australian Medical Association provides professional guidelines, most behaviour boils down to common sense:

  • You should set up separate accounts for your practice, for yourself personally and for communication with colleagues
  • Say nothing and publish nothing you would not want to see plastered on a billboard on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
  • Don’t talk about patients at all – it is then impossible to violate their privacy

"On balance, I think medical blogs, whitepapers, slideshows and surveys are useful tools to educate, listen, coach and mentor people where they are currently looking for information," Ms Henderson says. “When doctors share their knowledge and experience online, everyone can benefit.”

For some further reading on this topic, see:

*President George Bush mistakenly referred to the "interwebs" in a speech while he was in office. The expression has been widely adopted since.

Contact Profile

Lisa Kennewell, President, WIT-SA

M: 0414 69 70 71


doctors and social media, Facebook for doctors, Facebook for nurses




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