Don't post patient photos to social media, state medical boards caution

January 17, 2013

State medical boards are most likely to investigate physicians who post photos of patients on practice Web sites without their consent, or of themselves while under the influence of alcohol, according to a new report.

State medical boards are most likely to investigate physicians who post photos of patients on practice Web sites without their consent, or of themselves while under the influence of alcohol, according to a new report.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, highlights several social media behaviors that most often would attract the investigative eye of state medical boards.

Although many may think it is common sense to avoid posting incriminating on unprofessional content online, numerous studies of social media use by medical students and doctors have revealed unprofessional online content depicting intoxication, sexually explicit material, conflicts of interest, and violations of patient privacy. More than half of all medical school deans say they are concerned about unprofessional social media conduct of medical students, and 71% of state medical boards report they have investigated physicians for violations of professionalism online.

Particularly concerning is when “offline” breaches of professionalism-such as alcohol abuse and inappropriate relationships with patients-find their way online.

State medical boards participating in the study reported they would be highly likely to investigate instances of misleading claims of clinical results on a doctor’s practice Web site or when images of patients were posted to a Web site without explicit consent. Misrepresentation of credentials on a medical practice Web site and the use of an online dating site to interact with patients also scored high with state boards in terms of actions they would be most likely to investigate further.

Actions that resulted in moderate concern-with more than half of the surveyed medical boards saying they would investigate the situations further-included images of physician intoxicated with alcohol, patient confidentiality violations, narrative of patient encounters, and discriminatory speech.

The state boards polled were least concerned about narratives that were disrespectful to patients and images of doctors holding alcoholic beverages, but more than 40% say they would still be likely to investigate both situations further.

The findings present “never” behaviors for physicians that want to maintain the expected level of professionalism online and avoid state board investigations, the study notes.

“Recent data show that unprofessional use of the Internet does not ease once medical students graduate, and although there may still be a generational effect for social media use, recent trends show increased use among age groups mirroring the demographic characteristics of most licensed physicians.”

Guidelines for social media usage released by organizations like the American Medical Association recommend restraint online and advocate for separate professional and personal profiles, with limited access to a doctor’s personal online presence.

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