Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms are potent tools for reaching out to existing and potential patients. Via social media, you can highlight the strengths of your medical practice, establish yourself as an authority by sharing information, and organize giveaways, contests, and other events to generate publicity. Patient marketing through social media is increasingly becoming an essential way to promote one’s medical practice.
While the opportunities for social media marketing seem endless, the new opportunities also come with risks that doctors need to guard against. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine highlights the kinds of online behaviors that could be considered professional violations by state medical boards, resulting in an investigation.
In the study, “Online professionalism investigations by state medical boards: first do no harm,” the researchers solicited the opinions of state medical boards regarding ten hypothetical scenarios.
On a few of the scenarios, over 75% of the respondents agreed that the following constituted likely grounds for investigating a physician:
- Posting misleading information about various clinical outcomes. An example of this might be a physician claiming or suggesting that a particular treatment is much more effective than it actually is.
- Posting images of patients without their prior consent.
- Not being fully truthful about your professional credentials. For instance, falsely claiming that you have obtained a particular degree or certification is widely considered a likely violation.
- Getting in touch with patients in an “inappropriate” way. This further highlights the need for doctors to maintain professional conduct everywhere, and not relax their standards even in the more informal environment of social media. When posting to Twitter or Facebook, it’s best to release general messages to all followers, rather than using social media to ferret out information about the lives of individual patients or contact them in ways that cross professional boundaries.
Other possible violations that had less than a 75% consensus ranged from violations of patient confidentiality to the use of language deemed derogatory towards patients; avoiding speech that could be construed as discriminatory or bigoted is also important. Physicians should also be careful about posting images of themselves drinking (whether they look intoxicated or not), and also take care when sharing patient narratives, even if details are changed to better preserve confidentiality.
Because social media is so new, there aren’t yet clearly delineated guidelines for online conduct that are agreed upon by everyone. However, physicians should continue to exercise good judgment and be mindful that whatever they do online can have consequences for their practice as well.
Social media opens up new ways to successfully market yourself as a physician. Just remember to operate in the capacity of a professional who needs to keep patients’ trust and maintain a good reputation