Online Professionalism Investigations by State Medical Boards

First, Do No Harm

With the widespread adoption of online networking and social media, doctors are expected to uphold high standards of online professionalism. Using hypothetical vignettes, the likelihood of investigations for violations of online professionalism was examined.

A self-administered online survey was used to gauge consensus among state medical boards. Thirty-eight licensing boards from the 50 states were represented. A high consensus indicated that more than 75 percent of the respondents indicated that an investigation was “likely” or “very likely.” A moderate consensus was indicative of 50 percent to 75 percent, while a low consensus was fewer than 50 percent indicating a likely or very likely investigation. Data was collected from October 2010 through February 2011; the overall response rate was 71 percent.

Key Finding:

  • Boards were most likely to investigate misinformation on a physician practice website, patient confidentiality (posting of patient images without consent), and inappropriate communication with patients.

While the maxim “first, do no harm” traditionally applied to clinical actions, the online environment shows that this principle may need to apply to a broader area. This study has several limitations. It discusses only the likelihood of hypothetical situations. However, physicians should apply the same state of professionalism online as they do offline.