RI licensure board issues social media guidelines for medical practices

By Angela L. Carr

With physicians expanding their use of social networking websites, the Rhode Island Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline recently issued guidelines on the proper use of social media by healthcare providers and medical practices.

The Board’s guidelines address two primary areas of concern: (1) maintaining appropriate boundaries between personal and professional use of social media, and (2) strictly protecting patient privacy while sharing work experiences.

The guidelines specify unprofessional online behavior by physicians which could lead to sanctions, including:

  • Communicating with patients inappropriately (e.g., asking a patient out on a date through an online dating site);
  • Using the Internet for unprofessional behavior (e.g., posting a personal picture exhibiting intoxication);
  • Misrepresenting credentials;
  • Violating patient confidentiality;
  • Failing to reveal conflicts of interest;
  • Posting derogatory remarks regarding a patient; and/or
  • Posting discriminatory language or practices.

In addition, the guidelines offer practical suggestions to help physicians avoid unintended consequences of using social media.

For example, the Board stresses that physicians should not use their professional position to develop online personal relationships with patients. To that end, it discourages physicians from interacting with current or past patients on personal social networking sites, such as Facebook.

Online interactions between a physician and a patient should occur only within the scope of the physician-patient relationship for the purpose of sharing health and wellness information. Physicians should not use personal social networking sites to consult with patients about medical treatments.

Whenever possible, a physician sharing health and wellness information should “strive to ensure” that such information (1) is supported by current medical peer-reviewed literature; (2) emanates from a recognized body of scientific and clinical knowledge; and (3) conforms to minimal standards of care. A physician should also disclose whether the information is based upon scientific studies, expert consensus, professional experience, or personal opinion.

Similarly, the guidelines urge physicians to create separate professional and personal accounts on social media sites.
Physicians in non-clinical settings may discuss their professional experiences, according to the guidelines, but in doing so should not provide any identifying information about a patient to avoid running afoul of HIPAA. For example, health care providers should never post a picture of a patient or refer to them by name or some other code name.

The Board recognizes that online communications, such as peer-to-peer discussion groups, can enhance the medical profession. However, it urges physicians to participate only in secure online sites with verified, registered users. If a site is open to non-physicians, posted comments and content may be ambiguous, misconstrued, or taken out of context.

The Board encourages physicians to be mindful of their employer’s social media and social networking policies as they relate to the proper use of social media in the professional setting. They should also make sure any staff employee with permission to post on a social media account understands and agrees to the employer’s social media policy.

In addition to monitoring their own use of social media, doctors have a professional obligation to report to the Board unprofessional online conduct by peers.

The Board, which collaborated with the Federation of State Medical Boards in issuing the guidelines, indicates that the guidelines are a “starting point” on how physicians should properly communicate with their patients using social media. Given the rapidly evolving nature of social media, the Board suggests that it will likely modify the guidelines in the future “as technology advances, best practices emerge, and opportunities for additional policy guidance are identified.”

Angela is a partner in the Providence office of Barton Gilman where she concentrates her practice on counseling medical professionals on professional liability matters and compliance with regulatory requirements.