Should Physicians Be "Friends" with Patients on Facebook?

woman on phone by computer While social media has firmly established itself as a new way of communicating in nearly every corner of today’s society, it still remains full of landmines for physicians. They run the risk of accidentally breaking HIPAA regulations, of accidentally entering into doctor-patient relationships, and they run the risk of giving out inadequate medical advice by simply not knowing all of the facts in a given situation or having information inaccurately presented, to name a few.

That said, a recent article on discussed how some physicians are advocating for their fellow doctors to “Friend” their patients on Facebook and use other forms of social media. Needless to say, the article displayed quite a divergence of opinions.

Some argue that there is a dearth of credible health information out there in the world of social media and that the only voices being heard are those of celebrities with their own views on various health issues (like Autism and vaccines or what causes throat cancer) and sales pitches from health care companies. Some argue that participating in social media allows physicians to steer the public towards more scientific information and that real education can be done.

When talking about Facebook, Dr. John Lantos, an ethicist from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo says that responding to a “Friend” request from a patient is simply an “icky idea.” Others have done so, and see no harm in it. One physician in the article said that he has become “Friends” with some patients, although he has a personal policy to never talk about work on his Facebook page.

Does your institution have a policy on physicians becoming “Friends” with patients on Facebook? How about you, personally?

Should physicians Tweet? If so, could or should it be health-related? Or, should it not be health-related?

Does this extra communication foster the doctor-patient relationship? Or does it cross a line? While getting to know a patient more deeply may be helpful to the relationship, what about the patient getting to know the physician more deeply? While not necessary, is it, inherently, a bad thing?

As you can see, we are posing more questions than answers today. This is a very murky area and we here at encourage all health care providers to tread very carefully.

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