Social Media Do's and Don'ts for Physicians

FEBRUARY 13, 2019
Heidi Moawad, MD
Social media has not traditionally played a major role in the medical field, and physicians are often hesitant to use it. Now, it’s becoming clear that social media is here to stay and that personal and professional social media accounts can have a serious impact on how a physician is perceived. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to physician social media use, but it is important for doctors who maintain social media accounts to keep these important considerations in mind. social media, plan, comments, sensitive

Avoid inflammatory comments  

In recent years, some physicians have made widely reported gaffes on social media, often with serious consequences to their careers. Doctors are still held to a high standard, and missteps are not easily overlooked. In fact, highly political statements, disparaging remarks, and rants are often saved by screenshot and shared far beyond a physician’s social media connections.

So, while imagining that your statements could end up published in the news may feel ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt to think about this long shot possibility before you post. Doctors are generally among the most highly respected and trusted professionals. This trust and respect is an honor that shouldn’t be taken for granted. A physician’s words may carry extra weight—these words may be repeated as “truth” and may also be subject to close scrutiny.

Be clear about your availability with your patients 

In the age of social media, patients can look up their doctors and send messages and medical questions at any time, day or night. Along with the information that you routinely provide to your patients about your availability and contact information, it’s a good idea to add a boilerplate statement clarifying that the only way you should be contacted is through the processes that you have provided, and that you will not address patient care issues through social media.

Many social media accounts allow the sender to know whether the message was read by the recipient- potentially making the situation even more distressing for you if you receive an urgent message this way. 

Adjust your privacy settings 

It can take some time to figure out, but popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow you to adjust your settings to public or private. Beyond just selecting a public or private profile, you can also customize your settings in greater detail. For example, you can select an option to hide your comments from people you are not connected to and you can even block certain people from seeing your account at all. 

While even private messages can be saved on someone else’s phone or computer by screenshot and shared anywhere, having a private setting can make it less likely for you to receive unwanted messages.

Consider using a pseudonym 

Some doctors are concerned that unwelcome connection requests may arrive from patients, coworkers, employers, payers, litigious parties, or just about anyone who should use professional routes of contact instead. It is not uncommon for physicians to use nicknames on social media accounts, profile photos of nature scenes, or other means to avert identification through a standard search. 

Create a professional page 

Many doctors want to figure out how to advantageously incorporate social media professionally. Creating a verified professional page on any social media platform can provide you with some control over your online presence, and this may help you separate your personal and professional information. 

You can use a professional page to list basics about your practice, such as your practice webpage, your services, office address, and phone number. You might also decide to periodically add posts, such as helpful information for patients. Some doctors repost patient reviews from physician rating sites. A few take social media pages a step further and interact by answering general questions on the page. You can use your page however you want, but be sure to think through the details, including medical liability, ahead of time.  If a patient takes an action (or does not get needed medical attention) based on your perceived advice, then you could face liability for the outcome.

Disable outside comments on your page 

Safeguarding comments and posts on your medical page can be particularly important if you set up a social media account for your medical practice. If you don’t control the permissions on your account, anyone can add inaccurate medical advice or push product promotions – which may be misconstrued as something that you endorse.

You can alleviate these problems by adjusting your page settings so that you control or approve all comments that are visible on your page. Many professional pages utilize settings that prevent anyone who is not the account holder from posting on the page. Alternatively, you can set your page so that you (or your practice manager) must approve posts before they are visible.

Check your employer’s social media guidelines

Employers often have guidelines regarding social media use, and there have been highly publicized incidents in which doctors have lost their jobs due to online activity. Sometimes, even when there are no social media guidelines in place, employers choose to terminate an employee (at any level) whose social media statements reflect poorly on the business. 

Whether you are a beginner or a devout social media enthusiast, it is important to find out whether your employer has guidelines in place. If not, you might be the right person to work on creating those guidelines for your hospital or group practice. 

Social media is changing, and the line between personal and professional identities is not always clear. The ability to share your opinion with your circle of friends and professional connections can be enjoyable, and often builds a sense of community. But there can be downsides for anyone who doesn’t proceed with caution. As a physician, the career you have built is far too important to risk losing over a post that you might later regret.


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