The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)1 issues updates on clinical guidance for practicing obstetricians and gynecologists. It’s “Committee Opinions” is one such update on emerging issues in the specialty.2
Committee Opinion #791 considers the communication channels between patients and their physicians offered by digital and social media; more importantly, it discusses the pitfalls along with the advantages. Organizations like PHARMED help doctors navigate this brave new world with a personalized approach designed by doctors for doctors.
Why is the ACOG committee opinion important to our clients?
Digital and social media present both new advantages and pitfalls to the practice of medicine, and the right guidance will make sure today’s physicians will neither miss out on what these media have to offer nor allow physicians to fall into the traps that normally accompany venturing into new, unchartered territory.
What does this mean for physicians in private practice under the direction of PHARMED marketing design?
The upside of digital and social media is that these
• allow physicians to expand their presence, garnering attention via the new algorithms of search engine optimization;
• give each physician an online identity to which patients can relate—professionally, personally, and appropriately; and
• engender professional networking, such as with LinkedIn, which expands collaboration into the professional exchanges available.
The downside is that it
• can allow unauthorized others access if safeguards are not taken, and
• can violate the privacy of regulatory laws that protect privacy (e.g., HIPAA3).
The media explosion can add liability in that any online relationship is considered under the same laws as any other patient-physician relationship, and this applies to communications that will be discoverable in legal actions against physicians. Thus, media interactions should be treated the same as in-person (or in-office) interactions; and physicians should be no more willing to give an informal consult online, in a chat room or as a response in a blog, than on the street with someone who is not an established patient.
What should you do or not do?
You should consult your respective specialty and state medical boards and the Federation of State Medical Boards.4 These have policies of appropriateness when it comes to online interaction with patients. You should also ensure your patients’ privacy by using safeguards such that any communication cannot be traced back to a specific patient or hospital, violating HIPAA regulations. Password protection, participation-limited administrator privileges, and membership criteria are necessary. While an EMR has an audit trail with an identification protocol for all who have accessed it, this does not extend to digital interactions that are not password protected.
You should draw a line between the patients with whom you interact professionally and persons whom you designate “friends” (via the connecting action of “friending someone”). This is a successful separation between what you do professionally as part of your practice of medicine and what you do for entertainment.
You should monitor sites that rate you with more of a supervisory mindset: monitor for accuracy but do not ignore them. If something is blatantly untrue, you need only to contact the site with your objections.
You may be online for marketing, but you also can interact with your patients and offer them information on a variety or pertinent health subjects. Professionally, it also allows you to share your work with a large audience of like-minded professionals for the purpose of collaboration, creating a robust forum for dialogue with your peers, supported by a validity based on “altmetrics,” or the popularity of articles via “shares” and “likes,” among peers.
Digital outlets are not only acceptable, but are becoming indispensable in moving the medical profession forward in the practice of medicine as it pertains to the patient-physician relationship. Low-risk behavior by physicians—by following recommended caveats, guidelines of specialty societies, and a code of professional ethics—can avoid preventable liability while promoting your practice and enriching the quality of your care.
Just because this sounds simple, it is more complicated than it seems, so using a personalized, professional plan in concert with those who design these best, such as PHARMED, can give you the rewards without the drawbacks.
4. Federation of State Medical Boards. Model policy guidelines for the appropriate use of social media and social networking in medical practice. Euless (TX): FSMB; 2014. Available at: http://www.fsmb.org/Media/Default/PDF/FSMB/Advocacy/pub-social-media-guidelines.pdf. Retrieved August 27, 2014.