Doctors, Patients and Online Confidentiality: What Medical Boards Care About

Naturally, physicians worry about the repercussions of divulging certain information online, whether on their own hospital/practice websites or separate social media profiles. How much of the concern is warranted, and over what types of information? A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine sheds some light on what directors of medical and osteopathic boards said they’d be likely to investigate (via iHealthBeat).

Types of Online Actions That Would Likely/Very Likely Prompt an Investigation:

  • 81% — Misrepresenting treatment outcomes
  • 77% — Misrepresenting credentials
  • 73% — Depicting intoxication
  • 65% — Violating patient confidentiality
  • 46% — Using derogatory speech toward patients

It may come as a relief that some common fears of HIPAA violations over social media rank relatively lower (at 65% and 46%, respectively) compared to the more popularly investigation-worthy topics like intoxication and misrepresentation of credentials or treatment outcomes. Not to say that physicians shouldn’t be careful when talking about patients on the Internet, but that the fear of any potential mistakes being investigated should be tempered by the results of the survey above.

In other words, if the one thing holding a doctor back from raising her online profile were concern about a board investigation, she should reconsider the value of digital engagement in relationship to any potential reputation costs. In fact, considering 51% of boomer Internet users access social networking sites and more than 1 in 5 young adults (ages 18–24) follow clinics and hospitals on social media, doctors (or the organizations that represent them) should really be asking:

“Am I doing enough to keep patients and get new ones in the increasingly tech-savvy and consumer-driven healthcare world?”

Quick takeaway: Misrepresentation or intoxication are the biggest factors to potentially place doctors under board scrutiny, trailed significantly by behavior and confidentiality towards patients.

All told, survey responses (informed by 10 hypothetical vignettes) came from 48 board directors across 38 states.

p.s. Doctors also use social media to communicate with each other in closed networks (e.g. Sermo), though these are a separate category from broader general networks like Facebook where doctors and patients could potentially interact. In addition to those active on social networks, blogging doctors also face the same HIPAA concerns regarding patient confidentiality and specific medical advice. But don’t let the rules deter you from building a stronger and more informed patient community.

Check out Fathom’s detailed study of social media usage in the top 25 hospitals. Benchmark your own system’s social media situation and get other ideas to build your online presence and reach more potential patients, current patients and caregivers.

Social Media in the Healthcare Industry


Image courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

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