Doctors and Facebook: Is there a privacy risk?
December 16th, 2010
02:32 PM ET

Doctors and Facebook: Is there a privacy risk?

Doctors with a Facebook profile could be jeopardizing their relationship with patients if they don't correctly use the website's privacy settings, according to a study in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Study authors surveyed 200 residents and fellows at the Rouen University Hospital, France, in October 2009.  The overwhelming majority had a profile on the online social media website Facebook and almost all displayed their real names, birth dates, a personal photograph and their current university.

About half of those surveyed believed that the doctor-patient relationship would be changed if the patient learned that their doctor had a Facebook account; most believed this would happen only if the patient had unrestricted access to the doctor's profile.

"These are young professionals who are sort of learning what's ethical behavior in their profession for the first time, and crashing up against what is an increasingly popular social norm, for them personally," said Deven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.  She added that the large percentage of people in the study who had Facebook profiles reflect the popularity of the website among young people.

Facebook has more than 500 million users around the world.

"Any professional faces the same dilemma.  You want to share information with your friends, and yet, given the reach of Facebook, what are you comfortable sharing in a personal space that could be cast in a different light in a professional context?" McGraw said.

In November, the American Medical Association adopted a social media policy for its members.

"Using social media can help physicians create a professional presence online, express their personal views and foster relationships, but it can also create new challenges for the patient-physician relationship," said Dr. Mary Anne McCaffree, an AMA board member.

Among the group's recommendations for physicians: Consider separating personal and professional content online.  Use the privacy settings as much as possible.  If interaction occurs, maintain appropriate boundaries.  Finally, recognize that online behavior can have a negative impact on reputations and may result in consequences to their careers in medicine.

Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, attending physician at Texas Children's Hospital, often writes about issues involving social media and medicine.

"It's hard to say black and white that the availability of information is or is not going to change the relationship. It really depends on the information that's disclosed. How we define what represents something inappropriate is really in the eyes of the beholder," he said.

"I would disagree with the fact that the doctor-patient relationship is going to be seriously impaired. Depending on the generation, patients are becoming increasingly aware their doctors have personal lives outside the exam room," Vartabedian said. "I think physicians have become increasingly aware that whatever they do, whatever they say, that that information is going to be scrutinized and it's going to be viewed publicly. We have to be looking at ourselves really as kind of being in the spotlight 24-7."

"I think over the next year, we're going to see a lot more research appearing like this," he added.

Facebook privacy settings have recently changed.

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