2011 Ethics Forum: Social Media and Physicians

Why should physicians pay attention to social media?

“Because that’s where your patients are going to be,” Dr. Kevin Pho told  more than 100 attendees of the Society’s  Ethics Forum,  “Social Media and Medicine: the Impact on Your Patients, Your Practice, and You,” held during last week’s  2011 Interim Meeting.

Since starting his popular online portal KevinMD.com in 2004,  Pho’s site has become one of the most influential medical sites on the Internet, with 7 million page views annually.

He pointed to research that shows 8 out of 10 web-using patients polled looked online for health information, but only a quarter of them checked the accuracy of the information.  An estimated 86 percent of doctors also said they go online for health information.

Patients are often overwhelmed, confused, and frightened by what they find,  Pho said.

“What they see online affects health decisions before they even see a doctor,”  he said.  “It’s up to physicians to un-scare our patients.  Doctors can’t lose the online PR battle or we will lose out status as health care authorities.”

Pho shared the stage with Arthur R. Derse, M.D., J.D., Director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and professor of Bioethics and Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Derse discussed how frequently younger physicians are incorporating social media into their own lives.  He cited a study  indicating 65 percent of recent medical graduates were on Facebook and one-third of them had used the forum to reveal their sexual orientation, an episode of alcohol consumption, or a religious viewpoint.

About 33 percent of those doctors polled said they had received a friend request from a patient.  Of that group, 75 percent turned down the request – a recommended practice, Derse said.

Social media is a good thing, but has downsides, said Derse.

Derse told the audience of a cautionary tale involving a photo of doctors volunteering in Haiti smiling while posing with automatic weapons.  In that case, the photo –- later circulated on Facebook –- embarrassed those involved, he said.

Unprofessional images have caused some health care workers to be disciplined by their employers, or even fired, he said.

–Erica Noonan

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