Shefali Kulkarni recently blogged over at NPR an interesting post “NPR To Friend Or Not: The Facebook Challenge For Doctors.” It turns out that a majority of doctors, residents and medical students around the U.S. found it “ethically unacceptable to visit the profiles of patients” or interact with patients on social networks for either social or professional reasons. These findings were recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Note was made of the overwhelming pessimistic attitude of those who responded to a survey.
However, I would prefer to be on the optimistic side of history. Social networking sites are as hot as ever, and I don’t see them going away anytime soon. People crave social interactions with their friends and, as it seems from my own clinic’s Facebook site, they are not shying away from such interactions with their doctors. In fact, they genuinely seem to enjoy it.
Most of the concerns on the part of doctors seem to center around HIPAA privacy laws, which I can understand. However, the AMA’s position statement on social networking seems sufficiently nonspecific and flexible to allow a liberal interpretation of the rules here. They basically encourage doctors to make wise choices, and I would echo this sentiment. I’d like to clarify that I’m not telling anyone to go violate HIPAA — just saying that I think you can interact socially online without violating HIPAA. Patients are free to make statements and ask questions, just like anyone else. I think doctors should be able to answer questions comfortably themselves in a manner that still maintains their professionalism and privacy.
Now to be honest, it’s clear from some patient statements and questions on my Facebook site that some don’t seem to care much about privacy. It’s then up to the trained clinician to decide on a case by case basis – big potatoes or small potatoes? After umpteen years of medical, ethical and scientific training, I think I’ve earned the right to make that decision.
Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC, as a solo practice in 2009. He can be reached at email@example.com.