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Physicians Risk Running Afoul of Professional Ethics on Social Media

LEBANON, NH — New physicians might be better off sticking to photos and anecdotes about their pets when using social media.

That’s the implication of a recent study, published in the journal BJU International, which looked at public Facebook accounts for all U.S. urologists graduating from residency programs in 2015. Study authors from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that a surprising number of posts ran afoul of professionalism guidelines.

With 201 new urologists having publicly identifiable Facebook profiles, 40% had content the researchers deemed unprofessional or potentially objectionable. In fact, 27 profiles — nearly all of it authored by the physicians themselves — included “explicitly unprofessional behaviors, such as depictions of intoxication, uncensored profanity, unlawful behavior, and confidential patient information,” according to the study.

"As a new generation of social media-savvy physicians graduate from residency and enter practice, these findings raise concern about their professional behavior, online and offline," explained lead author Kevin Koo, MD, MPH, MPhil.

After determining which of the Facebook users identified themselves as urologists, the researchers compared their posted information to standards set by the American Urological Association, the American Medical Association, and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

Results led study authors to call for “greater awareness of trainee’s online identities,” adding, “Of those identifying as urologists on Facebook, approximately half violated published professionalism guidelines.”

The report notes that no differences in unprofessional content was noted between males or females or between holding MD vs. DO degrees.

Over the years, some medical associations have sought to thwart these concerns by issuing position papers on how to use social media.

For example, a document from the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine four years ago. It includes specific guidance for physicians who use social media sites.

The bottom line: It advised physicians to stop and think before they posted.