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I'm Your Doctor, Not Your Facebook Friend


Although a large percentage of young patients use Facebook, most still believe that "friending" a patient crosses a professional boundary.

Although a large portion of young physicians use Facebook, few say they would accept friend requests from patients, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

In the study, Ghassan Moubarak, MD, of Hopital Lariboisiere in Paris, France, and colleagues anonymously surveyed 160 residents and 42 fellows of Rouen University Hospital in France about their use of Facebook. The primary goal of their research was to determine physician opinions regarding the impact of Facebook on the doctor-patient relationship, according to the study.

Of the 202 participants who returned the questionnaire, 147 (73%) had a Facebook profile; among the responders, 138 (99%) displayed their real name on their profile, 136 (97%) their birthdates, 128 (91%) a personal photograph, 83 (59%) their current university and 76 (55%) their current position. Moubarak and colleagues found that if a patient requested them as a ‘friend’, 85% of participants would automatically decline the request, 15% would decide on an individual basis, and none would automatically accept the request.

According to an online report, factors in the decision to accept a request were as follows:

  • "Feeling an affinity with the patient";
  • Fear of embarrassing the patient;
  • Losing the patient's confidence; or
  • Losing the patient altogether

The authors also found that 48% believed that the doctor-patient relationship would be altered if patients discovered that their doctor had a Facebook account, but 76% considered that it would change only if the patient had open access to their doctor's profile, independent of its content.

Although 93% of respondents thought physicians should be allowed to have Facebook profiles, 82% said physicians should limit their profile access, they found.

To help physicians navigate the social network, the researchers offered several Facebook etiquette recommendations, as published in an online article. Physicians, they wrote, should do as follows:

  • Decline patient friend requests;
  • Not interact with patients online unless it directly pertains to patient care;
  • Be aware that online postings can be misinterpreted;
  • Use "caution and restraint" when listing information online; and
  • Acquaint themselves with privacy settings.

To access the study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, click here.

For more HCPLive resources on how social media is changing the physician-patient relationship, click on the links below:

  • Guarding Patient Privacy in the Age of Facebook and Twitter
  • Social Media Notebook - Oh, the online places you'll go...or not!
  • In Our Brave New World, Health 2.0 Is Changing How Physicians Communicate with Patients
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