Social Networks and Medicine – Hindering Privacy but also Saving Lives: The Social Media Privacy Report

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Anyone who knows social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter also knows the sites contain a flow of information between friends and strangers alike. But what happens when the people using these sites are doctors, individuals who have taken an oath to do everything in their power to save lives, but who have also sworn to protect confidential patient information? When a doctor has public tweets and an open Facebook profile it can be life saving, but it can also endanger a patient’s right to privacy.

Social Media Saving Lives

In a recent episode of the television drama Grey’s Anatomy, there was a big debate about whether surgeons should tweet during a procedure.  The chief of surgery, an older gentleman who was not well -versed in the workings of social media, was initially against it. He believed that doctors using social media was wrong, as it broadcast private patient details into a very public sphere and was also distracting. However, as the episode continued, a pancreatic surgery ran into a dead end, but as the doctors were broadcasting it live via Twitter, they learned of an alternative method to complete the procedure and were also donated the tools from a nearby hospital to get the job done. The patient survived. For a full rundown of the Twitter-related events in this episode watch the video below:

 

Of course, that is television and not reality. However, in a recent article from The Huffington Post it was reported that real doctors are also using social media in similar ways. Launched just last week, Mama: Together for Safe Births in Crises is a new online initiative that brings together doctors and midwives delivering babies in isolated environments. The goal is to connect these medical practitioners via Facebook and text messaging so that they can consult on different cases. As the article illustrates, if a doctor working in a clinic without colleagues encounters a medical problem that he or she can’t solve, they can use social media to ask other doctors for assistance with the case.

Other experts say that doctors have an obligation to their patients to post their knowledge on social networks. As reported by iHealthBeat.com, many health care providers are turning to social media as a tool to make sure that patients are getting correct information about their health. However, there is a caution with putting information on these networks. Susan Giurleo, a psychologist, business consultant and health care marketer, as quoted, believes that putting this type of information online is essential but that doctors must make certain that they “use the same ethics and confidentiality online that you use in real life.”

Lastly, as reported by The Atlantic, there is a new website, OrganizedWisdom.com, that curates the tweets of doctors. The company currently follows more than 6,000 social media accounts that have to deal with medicine, health and wellness. The goal is to organize the updates from these accounts in such as way that users and patients can search through them and learn. Unity Stoakes, one of the company’s co-founders, as quoted in the article, described the company’s goal to build a “trust filter for health and wellness.”

When Social Media Hinders Patient Privacy

But what happens when a doctor doesn’t follow the sound advice from Susan Giurleo mentioned above? What if a doctor isn’t tweeting to get help from another doctor, but instead is just blowing off steam after a rough day in the operating room? Whether its in person or online, doctors must always adhere to doctor-patient confidentiality rules.

Last year, Westerly Hospital in Rhode Island fired Dr. Alexandra Thran after she wrote a post about her work day. She did not reveal the name of her patient but she wrote enough that, according to allfacebook.com, the community was able to discern who her patient was. Just last week, Dr. Thran appeared before the board at the hospital and was reprimanded and fined $500.

The concern is growing, especially among medical students. According to boston.com, in a 2009 survery 60% of 78 responding medical schools cited incidents of students posting “unprofessional content” online.

Boston.com also interviewed Bradley H. Crotty, a physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who is an expert on the role of social media in healthcare. He stated, “I think we should all learn from [the Rhode Island case] and get to work on doing education and training in our hospitals to promote the professional use of social media… We first have to put ourselves in the shoes of the patient we may be discussing and then reflect if what we’re saying is appropriate.’’

Do you think that doctors using social media to discuss medicine is a good thing or a bad thing? Is it okay for a medical professional to potentially sacrifice patient privacy to save a life?

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Jillian Ryan

Jillian Ryan is PRIVATE WiFi's Director, Brand Communications and Social Strategy. With a passion for writing, the web, and fast-paced information exchanged via social networks, Jillian is also concerned about the ramifications of putting your life details and personal data into cyberspace. Follow her on Twitter: @Writing_Jillian.