Medicolegal Issues

The medicolegal considerations of interacting with your patients online

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Ground rules
All of this is not to say that professionals should never use Facebook or similar sites. Rather, if used, ground rules need to be established.

Social media communications must:

  • be professional and not related to personal matters
  • not be used to give medical advice
  • be controlled by high level staff
  • be reviewed periodically.

Staff training
Particularly for interactive social media (email, texts, Twitter, Facebook, etc), it is essential that there be both clear policies and good staff training (TABLE).9–11,18 There really should be no “making it up as we go along.” Staff on a social media lark of their own can be disastrous for the practice. Policies need to be updated frequently, and staff training reinforced and repeated periodically.

Quality of care and advice
Start with your website
Institutions’ websites are major sources of health care information: Nearly 32% of US adults would be very likely to prefer a hospital based on its website.5 Your website can be an important face of your practice to the community—for good or for bad. On one hand, the practice can control what is on a website and, unlike some social media, it will not be directed to individual patients. Done well, it “provides golden opportunities for marketing physician services, as well as for contributing to public health by providing high-quality online content that is both accurate and understandable to laypeople.”19 Done badly, it can convey incorrect and harmful information and discredit the medical practice that established it.

Your website introduces the practice and settings, but it will serve another purpose to thousands of people who likely will see it over time as a source of credible health information. The importance of ensuring that your website is carefully constructed to provide, or link to, good medical advice that contributes to quality of care cannot be overstated.

A good website begins with a clear statement of the reasons and goals for having the site. Professional design assistance generally is used to create the site, but that design process needs to be overseen by a medical professional to ensure that it conveys the sense of the practice and provides completely accurate information. A homepage of dancing clowns with stethoscopes may seem good to a 20-something-year-old designer, but it is not appropriate for a physician. It will be the practice, not the designer, who is held accountable for the site content. Links to other sites need to be vetted and used with care. Patients and other members of the public may well take the links as carrying the endorsement of the practice and its physicians.

Perhaps the greatest risk of a website is that it will not be kept current. Unfortunately, they do not update themselves. Some knowledgeable staff member must frequently review it to update everything from office hours and personnel to links to other sites. In addition, the physicians periodically must review it to ensure that all medical information is up to date and accurate. Old, outdated information about the office can put off potential patients. Outdated medical information may be harmful to patients who rely on it.

Any professional website should include disclaimers informing users that the site is not intended to establish a professional relationship or to give professional advice. The nature and extent of the disclaimer will depend on the type of information on the site. An example of a particularly thorough disclaimer is the Mayo Clinic disclaimer and terms of use (

General professionalism
At the end of the day, social media are an outreach from a medical practice and from the profession to the public.20 Failure to treat these platforms with appropriate professional standards may result in professional discipline, damages, or civil penalties. Almost all of the reviews of social media use in health care practice note that the risks of inappropriate use are not only to the individual physician but also to the general medical profession, which may be undermined. Consider posting policies of the relevent state medical boards, the AMA, and ACOG in your office after you have had a discussion with your staff about them.21

The AMA statement includes a provision that a physician seeing unprofessional social media conduct by a colleague has the responsibility to bring that to the attention of the colleague. If the colleague does not correct a significant problem, “the physician should report the matter to appropriate authorities.”9

Bottom line
Any practitioner considering the use of social media must view it as a major step that requires caution, expert assistance, and constant attention to potential privacy, quality, and professionalism issues. If you are considering it, ensure that all staff associated with the practice understand and agree to the established limits on social media use.

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