Editor’s note: Alex Blau, MD, is Doximity’s Medical Director.
Type “Facebook” into a PubMed search and you’ll get 19 academic articles,
letters or reviews, all from the last three years. For Twitter, there are 105.
Social media has tremendous potential to improve the way physicians
communicate, yet we’ve all read the stories of doctors being censured by
employers or licensing boards because of errant comments on Facebook. Though
rare, each such incident underscores a lack of understanding of what these
tools are for. Indeed, we’re just beginning to define their utility in the
There are, of course, some very clear contexts in which social media is not
appropriate. Neither Facebook nor Twitter are HIPAA-compliant environments, for
example, and it’s mainly discussions of patient care that have led to problems.
(There’s clearly a need among physicians to communicate about clinical issues.
We’re building Doximity specifically to allow those kinds of conversations.)
But the broader question is what can we say and where can we say it when we
talk in a professional capacity about health.
This week, I asked Lee Aase, Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for
Social Media to offer his insights on Facebook use, in particular. Here, he
took a little time away from preparing for the Mayo Clinic Social Media
Summit (Oct 17-21) to weigh in with some well-tested insight:
Anything you put online has the potential to be seen. I always say that you
shouldn’t have anything on the Web that you would be mortified to read in
your local newspaper. Fortunately, Facebook still has privacy settings, so
you can really be thoughtful about whom you accept as friends. For example,
we recommend that in most cases you shouldn’t accept a friend request from a
patient. Nor should you have to: You can communicate on Facebook without
having a friend relationship.
Not long ago, in a blog series we do for the Center for Social Media
called Friday Faux Pax, we covered the story of a woman in Scotland who
posted a picture from the operating room on her Facebook profile. That would
have been a privacy violation in real life, so putting it on Facebook is an
extension of that. Advice like this seems so obvious in hindsight, but what
often happens is that people are caught up in something and they’re letting
off steam so they confuse a post with a conversation. It’s understandable:
Facebook’s whole tone is conversational. For that reason, it can really help
to take a ten-second pause before you post something. Ask yourself whether
what you want to say is productive and helpful to be posting, or whether it’s
This isn’t to say you should shy away from posting anything–the way things
work these days, you will have an online footprint no matter what. That’s not
something you can control. What you can manage, though, is your opportunity
to make it good. Strong professional posts tend to consist of content in your
area of expertise. You always want to be talking in general terms; don’t get
into practicing medicine online. Even if you’re not using names or
identifiable information, remember that complaining about patients almost
always lowers the esteem of physicians in the public eye.
The broad rule-of-thumb is to keep it positive. Laughing at yourself rather
than making jokes about anybody else makes you seem trustworthy and credible.
More importantly, have a sense of what your personal boundaries are as you go
in. The physicians who have taken a little time to assess this question tend
to have the most rewarding experiences.