Online Medical Professionalism: New Guidelines for Physicians

Apr 15, 2013, 12:00 PM

Noting that “online technologies present both opportunities and challenges to professionalism,” the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards recently issued a position paper offering guidance to physicians looking to “strike the proper balance” between harnessing opportunities and navigating challenges inherent to technology.

The paper takes five positions:

1. Standards for professional interactions should be consistent across all forms of communication between physician and patient, and care should be taken to preserve the relationship, and maintain confidentiality, privacy and respect. “Friending” or Googling patients can result in providers observing “risk-taking or health-adverse behaviors,” and can compromise trust between the two parties. The paper urges physicians to avoid using online forums to “vent” or air frustrations.

2. Physicians should make an effort to keep professional and social spheres separate and behave professionally and cautiously in both. They should be aware that information posted online can quickly be widely disseminated or taken out of context.

3. Electronic communications should only be used by physicians in an established patient–physician relationship and with patient consent. Documentation of these communications should be included in patient’s medical records, and physicians should be aware of legal and state medical board requirements for these communications in their state.

4. Physicians should consider periodically surveying their online presence on physician-ranking sites and other online sources, and correcting inaccurate information.

5. The reach of the Internet is far and often permanent, and physicians, trainees, and medical students should be aware that they have implications for their future professional lives. Using privacy settings, limiting access to personal information, and keeping professional and social spheres separate are in the physicians’ best interest.

“Institutions should have policies in place on the uses of digital media,” the paper concludes. “Education about the ethical and professional use of these tools is critical to maintaining a respectful and safe environment for patients, the public, and physicians.”

The paper was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It is available without charge here.
Read more about “the promise and perils” of social media.
Read about research by RWJF Clinical Scholar Ryan Greysen on violations of online professionalism and actions taken by state medical boards.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.