Friday, January 27, 2012

AMA Weighs in on Social Media

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Casey Ferrell is a research analyst at Cutting Edge Information. He will be guest blogging at IIR’s upcoming ePharma Summit 2012 (February 6-8, 2012 in New York City). You can find him on Twitter or over on his company’s blog.

Joining the ever-growing list of organizations, associations and trade groups to weigh in on social media, the American Medical Association adopted this week a non-binding policy suggesting how physicians should go about their business on social networks.

Though there is nothing particularly groundbreaking within the policy document, it signifies a recognition by the nation’s preeminent physicians’ organization that physician participation in social media is happening and will likely continue. It seems each week as I peruse my Tweet stream, I see a new and staggering statistic about doctors’ technology adoption rates. Pretty soon smartphone ownership will be near universal for physicans, with tablets not far behind. These technologies provide real and meaningful tools to overworked doctors in all walks of life. From aspiring med students to seasoned surgeons, the medical profession is uniquely inclined to want, need and ultimately buy into digital technology, explaining the disproportionate rate at which doctors own and use those technologies. One of the outcomes of that early adopter status is increased exposure to all of the social media thriving in those technologies, thus it’s no surprise, really, that physicians tend to report social media usage rates higher than the average individual’s. What is completely unclear, though, is how they are using those media and for what purpose. Is it for personal use? Is it for professional use? Which platforms and services? Who are they interacting with?

All of this makes physicians’ use of social media an emerging area of interest to healthcare marketers, pharma companies, device companies, heck, even phone companies want a piece of this lucrative demographic. Which is why the AMA was smart to take this first step in recognizing that doctors are most definitely using social media, and to attempt to shape the way in which they do so.

The policy describes the following six principles:

1)      Physicians should be cognizant of standards of patient privacy and confidentiality that must be maintained in all environments, including online, and must refrain from posting identifiable patient information online.
This should go without saying, but I suppose stating the obvious is part of any good policy document.
2)      When using the Internet for social networking, physicians should use privacy settings to safeguard personal information and content to the extent possible, but should realize that privacy settings are not absolute and that once on the Internet, content is likely there permanently. Thus, physicians should routinely monitor their own Internet presence to ensure that the personal and professional information on their own sites and, to the extent possible, content posted about them by others, is accurate and appropriate.
I think this is intriguing primarily because it suggests to those doctors who don’t use social media that they probably should if they want to protect their reputation, or at least make a habit of trolling the digital waters for mentions of their name, practice, etc. This seems to me a concession by the AMA that the option of staying on the social media sidelines may eventually become infeasible or professionally inadvisable.
3)      If they interact with patients on the Internet, physicians must maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship in accordance with professional ethical guidelines just, as they would in any other context.
This, to me, is where physician social media usage will get very interesting as physician-patient interaction begins to test the bounds of HIPPA, FDA regulations and FTC regulations. The policy is careful here to go back to the generic “Internet” rather than social media. Internet interactions can run the gamut from completely exposed and publically accessible by anyone with a modem to highly encrypted, password protected exchanges that provide more privacy and security than a telephone ever could. In social media, the distinction between privacy is more blurred, especially on the monolith of social media, Facebook. If you are friends with your doctor on Facebook, exchanges could occur via private message or in a variety of other ways and with varying degrees of privacy. I suspect legal clarification will eventually be required on this front.
4)      To maintain appropriate professional boundaries physicians should consider separating personal and professional content online.
To split or not to split. That is the question every professional must make, doctors included. I see plenty of advantages to separating online identities, while I fail to see a commensurate set of advantages to exposing one’s private life to those of one’s patients. Perhaps I’m wrong, and I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on why it might be a good idea.
5)       When physicians see content posted by colleagues that appears unprofessional they have a responsibility to bring that content to the attention of the individual, so that he or she can remove it and/or take other appropriate actions. If the behavior significantly violates professional norms and the individual does not take appropriate action to resolve the situation, the physician should report the matter to appropriate authorities.
A bit of self-regulation can never hurt, but this is merely an extension of physicians’ existing code of conduct.
6)       Physicians must recognize that actions online and content posted may negatively affect their reputations among patients and colleagues, may have consequences for their medical careers (particularly for physicians-in-training and medical students), and can undermine public trust in the medical profession.
In other words, social media is serious business, folks, and people can get hurt. We can all use that reminder from time to time.  Right, Anthony Weiner?


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