Social Media and Medicine, or “Why Can’t We Be Facebook Friends?” 

Social MediaWe often find ourselves frustrated when we can’t immediately reach someone, get an answer to a question or add them to our growing list of Facebook friends. This expectation of connection is even expanding to our medical care. As a patient, you may want to email questions to a health care provider, befriend your family physician on Facebook, or wonder why your physical therapist isn’t on Twitter.

The reasons why medical care providers seem digitally aloof in an era of connectivity may be found in the recent publication “Online Medical Professionalism: Patient and Public Relationships: Policy Statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Associations.” Below are the main forms of digital communication and the recommendations given to health care providers:

  • Connecting on social networks: Physicians are encouraged to keep professional and social spheres separate online. The Federation of State Medical Boards specifically discourages physicians from “interacting with current or past patients on social networking sites such as Facebook.”

  • Communications such as email, text and instant messaging: While these forms of communication may provide instant answers and greater accessibility, concerns about confidentiality as well as the potential for misinterpretation make digital communications less preferable to in-person talks. Guidelines exist for health care providers about types of information and expectations of response time. Digital communications can only be used for patients who have established care, have a nonurgent question, and maintain face-to-face follow-up visits. In some cases, state laws won’t allow physicians to offer medical advice if the physician does not have a license to practice in the state where the email or text is received.

  • Online educational resources: Patient education websites allow patients to empower themselves through self-education; however, not all sites are created equal. Many sites on the web aren’t reviewed by other health care providers and may provide inaccurate information. Additionally, some websites are sponsored by companies who have a vested interest in patients pursuing their method of treatment. Ask your physician to refer you to reputable websites, or to vet the websites where you have already obtained information.

At all times, physicians must consider the trust in the patient-physician relationship. They must act ethically and protect your confidentiality and privacy. In order to maintain that trust, you may not be able to contact them with the same ease as your high school friends; however, in certain cases new technologies may give you quicker answers to our medical questions. Your health care providers can be a resource in navigating the maze of online information, they just can’t be your newest Facebook friend!

Farnan JM, Snyder Sulmasy L, Worster BK, Chaudhry HJ, Rhyne JA, Arora VM; American College of Physicians Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights Committee; American College of Physicians Council of Associates; Federation of State Medical Boards Special Committee on Ethics and Professionalism*. Online medical professionalism: patient and public relationships: policy statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Ann Intern Med. 2013 Apr 16;158(8):620-7.

Federation of State Medical Boards. “Model Policy Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice.”

Doctors urged to pause before they post, text or e-mail. USA Today. April 11, 2013.