Is Your Facebook Account a Privacy Breach?

A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (there is a link to the paper at the bottom of the article) reviewed doctors’ current Facebook use and what this might imply in terms of the doctor/patient relationship.  The study is small (only 202 people) and only involved residents and fellows, thus limiting the conclusions that can be reached.  However, it provides a some insight into how physicians use social medial, and invites some useful questions and suggestions.

Most of the physicians interviewed (73%) used Facebook, and most provided enough information that they could easily be identified.  The majority of users used standard privacy settings, instead of applying tighter settings.  Most physicians stated they would decline a Facebook friend request from a patient.  Nearly 50% of the physicians in the study indicated that they felt their presence on Facebook could affect the doctor/patient relationship, but most thought this would only happen if patients had full access to the doctors’ profiles.

The fact that so many physicians provided personal information is important.  Facebook’s standard security settings allow anyone to see your status posts and your photos–meaning that patients could easily identify their physician, read their updates, and send a friend request whether or not the physician would want that to happen.

A few thoughts:

–More and more physicians are going to have a social media presence.  We need to determine how best to use it, and medical educators should be teaching students and residents how to use social media professionally and safely.

–New social media users should seek help or guidance from more-experienced users in order to ensure that patient/provider privacy is being protected, and experienced users should be willing to guide their less-experience peers.

–The best practice is likely to have a private Facebook page that has stringent privacy settings and is accessible only to those people you would really welcome seeing it.  One can then establish a professional Facebook page that can be used for professional and official contact with patients.

–My bias is to decline friend requests from patients interested in having access to your personal page.  I have a disclaimer on my Facebook page noting that I will decline friend requests from patients, explaining that I use Facebook as a private means of communication with friends and family.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are here to stay, and will become ever more relevant to medical care as younger physicians enter practice and younger patients become professionals and health care consumers.  Rather than avoiding this fact, we must learn to use social medial to enhance doctor/patient communication while continuing to protect privacy and demonstrate professional responsibility.  The open and personal nature of much Facebook activity opens the possibly of privacy breaches–we must take care to avoid harm.

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