Facebook Posts Could Get You in Trouble with Medical Licensing Board, According to New Survey

Is it OK for a doctor to post a photo of himself drinking at a holiday party, while not appearing obviously intoxicated? What if the physician is wearing holiday scrubs in the photo, indicating he may possibly be drinking on the job? How about a doctor tweeting a drunken photo of herself? While a variety of medical associations have published social media guidelines for doctors in the past several years, they have been rather vague. The guidelines advise doctors to use common sense on social media sites, but many would prefer specific guidelines on towing the social media line.

social media medical licensing

A new survey from the University of California, San Francisco, was conducted to help bring more definitive answers to what is appropriate and professional for physicians to include on social media, such as tweets, blogs, and Facebook photos. Researchers at UCSF sent the surveys, which contained hypothetical examples of social media activity, to state medical licensing board directors located throughout the U.S. The directors were asked to decide whether the hypothetical activities would result in board investigations.

The survey’s fictional examples, which ranged from the harmless to the outrageous, were based on activities that medical boards had reported being concerned about. Examples included a photograph of a doctor on a drinking bender, passed out and surrounded by empty alcohol bottles; a doctor asking a patient out via an online dating website; and a photo of a patient having a baby that’s posted on a doctor’s website.

“It’s not hard to find images just like the ones we used with just some limited searching,” said Dr. Ryan Greysen, who designed the survey and is an assistant professor at UCSF.

Things to avoid posting on social media

Survey results revealed that there are certain things that, if posted online, will guarantee a physician gets in trouble. Over 80% of the boards who participated stated that an obviously misleading and impossible-to-prove claim on a doctor’s website – such as stating the doctor will cure a patient’s cancer, guaranteed – would warrant a board investigation.

Dr. Vineet Arora, an internist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, is active on social media sites and says, “it’s not 100 percent, which gives you some pause. What triggers an investigation in those states? If this doesn’t do it, what does?”

Arora found herself more interested in grey areas where there wasn’t a consensus among medical boards. For example, a little less than half of the boards reported they would investigate a doctor who wrote a disrespectful blog post about a patient.

The results of the survey, published in Annals of Internal Medicine’s January 15, 2013 issue, and other surveys like it, will ultimately be helpful to doctors who want to start using social media, but are afraid of jeopardizing their careers, says Arora. She states, “I feel like some of the mistakes we see are rookie mistakes. That’s when you’re still navigating the appropriateness of social media. People who have been using social media for a long time don’t usually get caught up in this kind of issue.”

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Photo by Alan Reeves