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Is Twitter a hazard or an asset for doctors?

2 min read


A George Washington University study found that 3% of physicians’ tweets were “unprofessional,” setting off a flurry of concerned headlines.

To be sure, doctors giving away patient details on Twitter or other social media sites is a big no-no and a nearly surefire violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Such providers need to reined in.

Yet, considering the number of studies done showing physician errors being made (39% of residents self-reported at least one major medical error during a six-year Mayo Clinic study) or physicians going to the other extreme and wasting patients’ money on unneeded exams (1 in 5 bone-and-joint doctors admitted in a Pennsylvania study to ordering exams based more out a fear of lawsuits than medical necessity), 3% of tweets going afoul doesn’t seem quite so bad.

The FDA lacks guidelines for drug companies and other marketers in the realm of social media, and the American Medical Association’s guidelines, released last year, are generic, lead researcher Dr. Katherine Chretien told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Chretien, who uses Twitter, said despite the red flags of unprofessional conduct and the potential for privacy violations, inappropriate remarks or dissemination of medically incorrect information, she sees social media as a place where the patient-provider relationship can be enhanced.

“I think the potential for physicians on social media is great in terms of spreading good health information, and advocacy and increasing health literacy,” she told MyHealthNewsDaily.

One of the more successful physicians in the online realm is Seattle-based pediatrician Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, who utilizes a blog for Seattle Children’s Hospital and her Twitter account to share her knowledge and point her followers to interesting developments in the medical world.

In an interview with SmartBrief late last year, Swanson said she takes extreme caution in changing patient names, genders and situations when discussing a situation she encountered during her practice, and she will even get that patient (or patient’s parents, as the case may be) to give permission before discussing the case in the virtual realm.

Image credit: sjlocke, via iStockphoto