Medical Practice Management

How Physician Use of Social Media Affects Patient Perceptions

When it comes to physician use of social media, typical standards may not apply. Learn what clinicians keep in mind when they create a social media profile.

Today, everyone who's anyone has a social media presence: From actors to athletes to average folks, online influencers abound. But typical standards may not apply to physician use of social media. In fact, research suggests that it's not just about simply maintaining a Twitter account, but how physicians use it that matters most to patients.

How Patients View Physicians Online

According to some estimates, about one-third of Americans use social media as a source of health information. It stands to reason, then, that physicians and other medical professionals would want to add to the conversation through their own accounts. This could help ensure that readers receive accurate health information. When used wisely, social media can also be a helpful marketing tool, helping attract new patients and foster relationships with existing ones. Indeed, some 90 percent of physicians use social media for personal reasons and 67 percent use it professionally, according to the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR).

Optimal use of these platforms, however, doesn't just mean setting up an account and tweeting or posting as you wish. The JMIR study found that physician use of social media is more complicated. Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and Wayne State University randomly assigned obstetrics and gynecology patients to view one of six medical Twitter profiles, which differed in provider gender and the nature of tweets. Each participant answered 10 questions about their perceptions of the person's professionalism based on the content.

The researchers found that providers whose profiles had educational tweets alone received higher mean professionalism scores than those that mixed them with personal tweets.

Tips for Physicians Using Social Media

Maintaining a helpful online presence is clearly a delicate balance for clinicians. The American Medical Association offers some recommendations for physician use of social media. The following suggestions can help guide your professional use of Twitter and other social media platforms.

  • Keep privacy and confidentiality top of mind, and avoid posting patient information online.
  • When using social media for exchanging information with other clinicians, follow ethics guidance that covers privacy and informed consent.
  • When engaging in online social networking, use privacy settings to protect your personal information to the extent allowed. However, these settings are not guaranteed and, once on the internet, content is likely there for good.
  • Monitor your internet presence to ensure that the personal and professional information on your accounts is accurate and appropriate.
  • Follow appropriate ethical conduct if you interact with patients online.
  • Keep personal and professional content separate online.
  • Recognize that actions and content posted online may negatively affect your standing among patients and providers, may have consequences for your medical career and can negatively affect public trust.

By following these tips, you can maintain an online presence that encourages patients' trust in you without crossing ethical boundaries. Social media is here to stay, and using it intelligently can benefit physicians and patients alike.