Think before you tweet. That’s what surgeons should remember before they express themselves on social media.
Anger and frustration can prompt ill-advised social media postings that have a big potential for blowback, Heather J. Logghe, MD, FACS, and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. But so can enthusiasm about posting about a new device or procedure, a fascination with a difficult case, the sense of relief that a patient made it though a harrowing period, or even just the simple joy of tossing back a beer or two with pals at the local watering hole (J Am Coll Surg. 2017.).
“In a survey of 48 state medical boards, 44 (92%) reported online-related misbehavior with serious disciplinary consequences leading to license restriction, suspension, or revocation. A 2011 study of ‘Physicians on Twitter’ revealed that 10% of the physicians sampled had tweeted potential patient privacy violations. A 2014 study of publicly available Facebook profiles of 319 Midwest residents found 14% had ‘potentially unprofessional content’ and 12.2% had ‘clearly unprofessional’ content, the latter including references to binge drinking, sexually suggestive photos, and HIPAA violations.”
, of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, is a member of the American College of Surgeons’ (ACS’s) social media committee tasked with creating practice recommendations for clinicians’ use of social media. Conducting a literature review was the first step to creating a surgeon-specific document, and the team found seven online behavior guidelines directed at physicians. Groups authoring these papers included the American Medical Association, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and several international groups.
Dr. Logghe and her colleagues reviewed each one, synthesized the information, and created a practice recommendationspecific to the ACS. While not encoded in any professional ethics requirements, “Best Practices for Surgeons’ Social Media Use: Statement of the Resident and Associate Society of the American College of Surgeons” does lay out some common, potentially problematic scenarios and offers some suggestions about how to avoid Internet regret.
Everything discussed in the paper revolves around maintaining a decorous public persona. Professionalism on and off the clock is a key tenet of the recommendations. Definitions of key terms like “professionalism” are an important basis for any practice guideline, but sometimes concepts are not easy to define, the team wrote. “Perhaps the limitation most difficult to address in any formalized guideline is the necessary subjectivity in interpreting what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘professional’ online – or in any other setting,” the authors wrote. The ACS Code of Professional Conduct does not explicitly define either of those terms or discuss the appearance of unprofessional behavior.
In the absence of a plain-and-simple definition, the authors attempted to couch the social media recommendations in terms of ACS’s commitment to maintaining the patient trust. It urges surgeons to “avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
The practice recommendations touch on a number of areas that are potentially problematic for surgeons, including confidentiality, financial conflicts, collegial support, and general social responsibility.
Maintaining privacy is more than a courtesy to patients: It’s a federally mandated law with serious punitive repercussions if violated. Blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook offer a vast potential for sharing information with and educating the public, but postings can also easily violate HIPPA standards, the team wrote.
“In general, most social media platforms are not HIPPA-compliant,” no matter how the privacy settings are adjusted. These modes of communication are never appropriate for patient-physician communication: They can’t be archived in an electronic health record, and it is ill advised to give any medical advice by using these channels.
Discussing a particular case online, even with the usual defining details omitted, can be a bad idea.“Simply de-identifying patient information may not be sufficient. When posting information online, one must be cognizant of the context of other information available online. Such information includes the poster’s place of employment, news media, and publicly available vital statistics. Therefore even when posting general comments about hospital events, surgical cases, or patients under one’s care, it is essential to consider the sum of information available to the reader, rather than simply the information shared in the isolated post.”
Most employers have social media guidelines and don’t take kindly to violations – which can affect both current and future job postings. “A strong social media presence can be of benefit to one’s employer, [but] content that portrays a surgeon in an unprofessional or controversial light can be detrimental and even career-damaging.”